Important messages in OECD’s skills report are ignored in desire to show the report “proves” Gove’s reforms are needed

Janet Downs's picture
“Schools go backwards: Pupils are worse at maths and literacy than their grandparents. … England only country where those retiring have better skills than the young.”

Daily Mail, 8 October 2013

But that’s not what the OECD skills report* said.

16-24 year-olds perform similarly in literacy and numeracy as adults aged 55-65 so the Mail’s headline is untrue.

The lack of “improvement” between younger and older adults was not “necessarily because performance has declined in England/Northern Ireland (UK) … but because it has risen so much faster in so many other countries across successive generations”, the OECD said. In other words, in countries like Korea elders were more likely to have lower levels of literacy/numeracy because of poor education but better educated Korean youngsters streaked ahead. This would make the “improvement” gap larger than in England/Northern Ireland.

The importance of this report is not just the relative standing of England/Northern Ireland. There are two strands: national, relating only to England/Northern Ireland and global, implications for all countries.

For the sake of brevity I’ll discuss these separately and concentrate only on the overview findings for England/Northern Ireland.

The OECD wrote:

1 “In England/Northern Ireland (UK)… social background has a major impact on literacy skills,”

2 In England/Northern Ireland “the children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education, even after taking other factors into account.”

In the UK as a whole, disadvantaged children do particularly badly - there is a wide gap between the performance of disadvantaged and advantaged children. This lamentable fact has been stated again and again.

The OECD has found the best-performing schools systems tend to be those that combine equity with quality: they don’t segregate children academically or by virtue of where they live. But “our education system is, with exception of a couple of countries, the most socially segregated in the developed world,” (Sutton Trust).

The OECD recommended measures by which England could raise the performance of disadvantaged children. The Government has responded (here and here) but the rhetoric doesn’t quite match reality. The excessive emphasis on test results in England, for example, has increased. And the academies programme risks more segregation – the OECD said it would need monitoring if it were not to impact negatively on disadvantaged children and the Academies Commission had concerns about decreased social inclusion.

But the effect of social background on skills proficiency has been ignored. Instead, much of the media commentary focuses on attacking the UK state education system ignoring the fact that those who were tested would have included people educated in the private sector.

If the English education system is at fault then it’s the whole of that system not just the state sector.

The report’s being used to push particular policies or criticize the last Government. That’s not to say the last Government didn’t have failings in education policy. These include deceiving everyone about academies; messing about with the national curriculum; allowing the use of equivalent exams; changing Ofsted goalposts and firing “verbal bullets” from Tony Zoffis.

But the elephant in the room is England’s socially-segregated education system, how this is worsening and the devastating effect it will have on disadvantaged children who are being let down.

CORRECTION 12 October 2013:  The OECD published two sets of figures showing the difference between the scores of young people and older adults.  One was the mean score which I used.  The other was an adjusted score which took into account factors such as gender.  That was what the Mail used.  This makes the Mail's headline correct.  The Mail made that clear in its article (sorry, Mail):

"The OECD said England was the only country where  the oldest age group  studied (55-65) had a higher proficiency in literacy and numeracy than the youngest (16-24) after other factors such as sex,  socio-economic background and type of occupation were taken into account."

However, the graph in the article showed the unadjusted figures which contradicted its headline.  And the Mail omitted the words in large font which were printed next to the graph in the report: "Young and older adults in England/Northern Ireland (UK) perform similarly (266 points vs. 265 points)."

Perhaps the Mail will continue to use adjusted figures.  It could then print the earlier OECD findings that UK state schools outperform UK private schools when socio-economic factors are taken into account.


*This thread is based on the overview only. An analysis of the data will follow at a later date after the global implications have been discussed.

NOTE:  The Reader's Guide to the OECD Skills report said the "non-response rate bias" for England and Northern Ireland was "unknown".  England and Northern Ireland were the only two countries where the bias wasn't known.  I'm not a statistician so I don't know whether this unknown status makes the data for England and Northern Ireland unreliable.  Any statisticians out there who can throw some light on this?

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