The Daily Mail
is in no doubt
– “comprehensive schools prevent pupils from poor backgrounds achieving their potential”. But the study the paper cited actually said the opposite: selecting students early for schooling based on ability “amplify socioeconomic inequalities in performance”.
singled out four European countries which, it said, had “virtually eliminated” the effects of disadvantage: Austria, Germany, Romania and Hungary. But only two of these (Austria and Germany) select pupils before the age of 15 and Germany is moving away from selection.
But is it true these four countries have reduced the effects of socio-economic background to practically zero? Not according to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development based on results from the 2012 PISA tests.
OECD number-crunchers took the “score point difference” in maths (the main focus of the 2012 tests) between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, calculated how much this difference could be blamed on background as opposed to other criteria and produced a “strength of relationship” percentage. Countries with a score below the OECD of average of 14.6% were doing better than countries which exceeded the average in reducing the effect of background on pupils’ performance.
England’s score was 12.4% which shows England was doing slightly better than other countries in reducing the effect of socio-economic background. But the four countries praised by the Mail
had scores above the average meaning they were not as good as reducing the effect:
In contrast, the Mail
said two European countries with comprehensive systems, Sweden and Norway, had been poor at reducing the effect of socio-economic background. But the latest OECD figures show Sweden’s strength of relationship score to be 10.6% and Norway’s was 7.4%.
These figures turn the Mail
’s analysis upside-down.
However, it would be unwise to use this data to conclude a particular school system will always reduce the effects of background: comprehensive Denmark scored 16.5% while selective Northern Ireland scored 16.7%. Neither country had done as well as OECD average countries in reducing the effect of background on performance.
Nine European countries had lower strength of relationship scores than England but four of these scored lower than England in the maths tests. That left five countries which did better than England in maths AND which did better at reducing the effect of socio-economic background.
Do these five countries practise selection at an early age (ie at 10/11):
Liechtenstein: Yes (but Liechtenstein is “almost a single-class” country)
Estonia: Not until 15 when primary education ends.
Netherlands: Selection at age 12 for entry into lower secondary at age 13.
This is too small a sample to conclude whether selection “works” or “doesn’t work” in reducing the socio-economic divide while at the same time scoring highly in PISA tests. But what the figures show is the difficulty of using test data to “prove” the superiority of one type of school system over another by just considering one factor.
NOTE: OECD data showing PISA index of economic, social and cultural status and performance in mathematics is shown in chart on p 167 NFER
(December 2013 Revised April 2014)