Turn the clock back to the start of the last Government. Remember the propaganda? The UK was plummeting down league tables, we were told. But this was based on a false comparison between PISA* results for 2009 with flawed results from 2000 – results which the OECD* warned shouldn’t be used for comparison.
Eventually, after the UK Statistics Watchdog censured the Government’s use of these figures
, politicians stopped talking about plummeting and used ‘stagnation’ instead. It didn’t matter that at the time England was the top European nation
in Maths and Science in TIMSS** tests – England was ‘stagnating’.
Schools minister Nick Gibb regurgitated ‘stagnation’ again
yesterday in the debate on the Education and Adoption Bill. ‘Reliable data’, he said, proved the Coalition had ‘inherited a legacy of stagnation’. This was because ‘our schools were failing to progress’ against ‘international benchmarks’ in 2010. Four countries, ‘Poland, Germany, Austria and Estonia’, were examples of countries leaving the UK behind, Gibb said.
But was this entirely true? Not quite:
1Estonia’s 15 year-olds outperformed those in the UK in all three subjects
2Germany outscored the UK in maths and science but was not statistically significantly different in reading (Germany scored just 3 points more).
3Poland outscored the UK in reading but the scores for maths and science were not statistically significantly different – the UK actually scored 6 points more than Poland in science.
4The UK outperformed Austria in reading and science. Austria was statistically significantly below the OECD average in these two subjects. Austria’s score in maths (496) was not statistically different from the UK’s (492).
5The UK was at the OECD average for reading and maths and above average in science.
Gibb’s interpretation of the ‘reliable data’ from 2010 is a little shaky. And he was, of course, ignoring those much more favourable TIMSS results.
There has been another round of PISA and TIMSS since then. PISA 2012 showed a slight improvement
for the UK although Estonia, Germany and Poland pulled ahead. Austria scored above the UK in maths but not in reading or science. TIMSS 2011, however, tells a different story with English 10 and 15 year-olds doing well***.
Gibb trotted out the same statistic about 100,000 more six-year-olds being ‘on track’ to becoming confident readers. This, he said, was because of ‘our focus on phonics’. Gibb seems to have forgotten the number of pupils in primary schools is rising but even if it were not, research commissioned by the Department for Education
found teachers were supplementing phonics with other methods.
One million more children are in good and outstanding schools than in 2010, Gibb said. But it’s in the primary sector where the proportion of good and outstanding schools has risen – and the primary sector is predominantly non-academies. In the secondary sector, where more than half of schools are academies, the proportion of good and outstanding schools has stayed the same.
Gibb quoted Ofsted’s annual report: ‘Overall, sponsor-led academies have had a positive and sustained impact on attainment in challenging areas’. It's on page 31 of the 2013/14 report
. Wilshaw noted:
'As Figure 10 shows, these academies had the greatest impact in the first few years that they were open.'
These would have been Labour academies. Machin and Vernoit's research
into these early academies said becoming an academy had a 'significant improvement in the quality of pupil intake, [and] a significant improvement in pupil performance.' It's hardly surprising improved intake results in improved results.
Wilshaw also noted the rate of improvement in these academies was beginning to slow as they got nearer to national levels of attainment and results at some sponsored academies were declining. It should be remembered that many sponsored academies boosted their results by including 'equivalents' and the DfE admitted sponsored academies did no better than similar non-academies when these equivalents were removed.
Gibb said the Chief HMI's comment was ‘backed up by results that show that sponsored academies are improving their performance faster than maintained schools.’ I didn’t know whether to react to this statement with weariness or a snort of derision. Gibb knows – he’s been told often enough – that the rate of improvement in sponsored academies starts at a lower base than maintained schools. And a rate of improvement calculated from a low base is bound to be larger than one calculated from a higher base. But, as noted above, when sponsored academies are compared with similar non-academies, the DfE admitted in the High Court
that the former did no better than the latter when equivalent exams are stripped out.
It appears the debate on the Bill has been debased by shaky analysis of data, misleading statements and exaggeration about academy success. This is something the Education Select Committee warned against. It seems that Nick Gibb has decided to ignore this warning just as he and the then Secretary of State Michael Gove brushed aside a warning five years ago. The earthquake which has undermined state education in England was caused by disregarding a warning: an after-shock is likely following the Government’s insistence on flouting another one.
24 June. The original article has been corrected. I hadn't been able find the Chief HMI quote in an Ofsted Annual Report and asked anyone who did find it to let me know. agov found it so I've removed the sentence. I have also added comments about what the Chief HMI also said after the quote. These are the two paragraphs after the quotation beginning 'As Figure 10 shows...'.
*Programme for International Student Assessment set every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to test 15 year-olds in reading, maths and science.
**Trends in Maths and Science Survey set every five years to test 10 year-olds and 14 year-olds.
***Estonia didn’t take part in TIMSS. Results 2011
10 year-olds maths: England 9th out of 50, Germany 16th, Austria 23rd and Poland 34th.
10 year-olds science: Austria 13th, England 15th, Germany 16th, Poland 30th. Note: rankings are misleading. Austria’s score was 532, England’s 529, and Germany’s 528. The difference in scores was statistically insignificant.
15 year-olds maths and science. Austria, Germany and Poland did not take part in these. England’s score for maths was 507, not significantly different from the centre point of the international scale (500) and ranked tenth among participating nations. England’s score for science was 533, above the centre point of the international scale (500) and ranked ninth among participating nations.