International test results show how England’s education system needs further reform, says Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in the foreword to the Education White Paper. But when she talks about international tests she’s only referring to one: PISA set by the OECD.
Since the Department for Education’s deception about PISA comparisons from 2000 was unmasked, the DfE resorts to saying PISA results for the UK have remained static rather than its previous claim that PISA results had plummeted.
But while it’s true UK scores have been consistent, its performance in PISA between 2006 and 2012 shows UK 15/16 year-olds performing* at the OECD average in reading and maths and ABOVE the average in Science.
Being consistent at the OECD average in reading and maths isn’t an excuse for complacency, however. But the excessive emphasis on exam results in England makes the kind of proficiency tested by PISA less likely because it encourages shallow teaching to the test. And OECD guru Andreas Schleicher believes the UK PISA maths score will fall because of ‘superficial’ teaching focusing too much on memorisation rather than conceptual understanding.
Other international tests paint a more positive picture of the performance of England’s pupils. These are ignored. The Programme in International Reading Literacy Study 2011 showed English 10 year-olds improving their score. No ‘static’ performance there. The Trends in Maths and Science Survey puts England in the top ten for primary maths. And English 14 year-olds have scored consistently highly in TIMSS science since 1995.
It is, however, important to treat international league tables with caution*. They provide an important snapshot at a single point in time but should not be used as a sole justification for policies. Nor should they be seen as a judgement on a country’s whole education system.
Morgan’s foreword regurgitates the mantra about how the Coalition ‘inherited an education system where 1 in 3 young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly’. Since she was criticised twice by the UK Statistics Watchdog for her misleading use of Key Stage 2 literacy and numeracy data, she’s added the vague adverb ‘properly’ to her statement. The Department for Education statistics department, to its shame, has allowed the use of this woolly word.
The White Paper is clear on what is meant by ‘properly’, however. It’s the equally fuzzy ‘firm grounding in the basics’.
Morgan describes the ‘Acting first; thinking later’ approach to educational change derided by Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee, as ‘bold reforms’. These include the new National Curriculum. Morgan seems unaware that academies can opt out, in theory at least. But in practice they won’t because they’ll be tested on it. The DfE makes that quite clear in its response to the petition calling for the Key Stage 2 tests to be abandoned: ‘The best way to prepare pupils remains to focus on teaching the new national curriculum.’
The much vaunted ‘autonomy’ offered by Morgan and her predecessor Michael Gove is a chimera. High stakes tests ensure compliance with the national curriculum and distort what schools teach; academies in multi-academy trusts have less freedom than heads in LA maintained schools; ministerial pronouncements make it clear how ‘good’ schools teach.
This is a companion piece to Henry Stewart’s article which blows holes in academy ‘improvement’ statistics used in the White Paper.
*See faq ‘Should international test results be used with caution?’ above.