UK schools are not failing -- Gove misrepresents OECD report

Francis Gilbert's picture

This is a post by Janet Downs, who had trouble logging in.

How fair was reporting about the recent OECD on British education? analysed articles in the Daily Mail and The Spectator and discovered that although both papers had been accurate in the items they had chosen to highlight there were omissions. Both had used the report to paint a negative picture of the state of education in the UK. The Spectator went so far as to say that the OECD report was “rather a staggering indictment of Tony Blair’s ‘education, education’ education’ policy” while the Mail concluded that the OECD concerns about grade inflation “have hidden a true picture of failure in our schools.”

What neither paper said was that OECD did not confirm that UK schools were failing – they reported that “average PISA test scores… for the UK are close to the OECD average… [but] they trail strong performers such as Finland. Average performance among 10-year-olds, as measured by PIRLS and TIMSS scores is however relatively strong in an OECD perspective.*”

The Mail also accurately reported the issue of disadvantaged children not receiving adequate support.

However, the paper didn’t reveal OECD concerns that government reforms to tackle this issue could be inadequate. Both papers also accurately summarised the OECD’s support for academies and free schools, believing them to increase parental support.  But they both omitted OECD concerns that the positive effects of user choice “could potentially lead to segregation.”

These papers weren’t alone in skimming the report to find quotes to vindicate a particular opinion. Nadhim Zawahi (Con) MP asked Mr Gove if the report was a “sad indictment of the past 13 years of Labour.” He replied, “I read the OECD report with a mounting sense of sadness. It made the case forcefully by the deployment of facts and argument in a remorseless fashion that under the previous Government, for all the welcome additional spending on schools, standards had not risen to anything like the expected level… (There is more, much more – the Speaker had to intervene).

Mr Gove used an answer to an obviously planted question to attack Labour while overlooking OECD concerns about possible negative effects of his policies.

Gove paid no heed to the clear conclusion of the OECD that UK education was not failing. One has to suspect a Secretary of State for Education when he cynically distorts data in this way.

*page 97 OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom (I expanded the quote given by FullFact.Org, so I felt I needed to give the source)

POSTSCRIPT: 20 June 2017.  The above article differs slightly from the original posted.  The changes are cosmetic (eg italicising the names of the papers, putting key sentences in bold) or to remove a duplicated sentence in the original (the last one).  The substance remains unchanged.

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Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 09/04/2011 - 18:53

I can't seem to be able to download this OECD? Could someone be good enough to provide the correct link?

Thank you

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 07:44

A summary of the OECD Economic Survey 2011 is available here:

There are links at the bottom of the page explaining how people can get the complete copy. This is only available to subscribers, to purchase or to journalists. That's why I quoted a page number at the bottom of my post because the full report isn't freely available (which, of course, makes it easier for politicians and others to cherry pick quotations).

I've got a copy of the full report so if I quote from it again I will provide page numbers instead of a link.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 07:46

Another example of media misreporting: The Mail’s front page on 9 April was filled by a giant headline: “School leavers unfit for work” followed by “Firms forced to spend billions on remedial training for victims of educational failure”. The article quoted David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, who said, “Despite the billions that have been spent over the last decade, business relentlessly bemoans the lack of skills available.” This is not the same thing as saying that businesses are the ones spending billions.

Nevertheless, the claim that firms had to spend the equivalent of the education budget on “remedial training” was repeated in an editorial on 9 April.

The Mail describes the Organisation for Economic Co-operation as “respected”. However, the paper doesn’t respect it enough to heed its warning about the use of the discounted OECD PISA 2000 figures. The Mail said again, “the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. It is now behind relatively poor nations such as Estonia, Poland and Slovakia.”

Oh, and Slovakia (aka Slovak Republic) was ten places BELOW the UK in the overall league tables (although Slovakian pupils did have a five point lead in Maths).

Just another example of how statistics are misused and people misquoted which, together with cherry-picking quotes from research papers to vindicate a particular point of view, paint an excessively negative picture of UK education.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 08:14

This was Mr Gove in answer to the parliamentary question featured in my original post:

“It was also striking that that report endorsed the case for the coalition's commitment to spending more on the disadvantaged, the coalition's commitment to creating free schools, and the coalition's commitment to overhauling the league table system. For a respected international institution to give such a resounding thumbs-down to the previous Government and thumbs-up to the coalition Government is- [Speaker intervenes with pithy comment about the need to make punchier answers]”

Mr Gove said the OECD endorsed the Government’s plans. However, this isn’t entirely the case.

OECD said that the extra spending for disadvantaged children only goes “some way towards addressing underspending on deprived students… it is not clear whether the proposed level of deprivation funding is sufficient” (OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011 p106).

While endorsing free school creation the OECD presented mixed evidence about school choice and educational standards. It warned that the policy would need careful monitoring (op cit p85).

The OECD did not endorse Mr Gove’s plans to make league tables more robust. It expressed concern about “the extensive focus on grades” which is “conducive to grade inflation”. OECD advises that “the reliance on GCSE scores should be lessened” and there should be “more emphasis on lesson observation and the learning environment.” The OECD recognises that measuring and testing is costly so they recommend a “sampling approach [which] would hinder ranking of schools and would therefore remove teachers’ and schools’ incentives to ‘teach to tests’.” (op cit pp100-102). Not quite what Mr Gove has in mind.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/04/2011 - 18:56

Thanks for all these posts Janet. Since the report is not widely available it is good to read a more balanced interpretation of what the OECD Survey actually said.

As we get closer to the opening dates of the first free schools, the case for them looks flimsier and flimsier. The government’s every justification for them – ideological, financial, social – can be, and has been, easily demolished by very simple questioning and analysis. The government and it’s free school cronies have so far failed to conclusively show that free schools will perform better than existing LA maintained schools, that they will not discriminate or be divisive and that the funds being channelled away from existing schools to create them is not a calamitous misappropriation of meagre funds.

Reassurances on this and other educational matters are in short supply from the DfE but there have been far too many debacles for comfort – the U-turn over EMA, the school sports system first scrapped then reprieved and of course a court conclusion that Gove had acted in a manner "so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power" in cutting the BSF scheme and exposing his department to more legal claims.

Faced with mounting criticism and demands for more transparency, the free school supporters resort to ridicule and naked aggression in an attempt to close down the arguments which expose the dangerous flaws and inherent vanity of this policy. The government, with no tangible evidence to prove that free schools are the saviour of state education, conceal the paucity of their vision by withholding and distorting information. It should surprise no one that they are now so desperate for validation that they attempt to find corroboration where little exists in the OECD report.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/04/2011 - 14:43

I’ve just re-read the Mail’s article re school leavers and would like to offer a correction. I had said that the remarks made by David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, did not imply that British firms paid billions on training young recruits as the Mail had suggested.

However, a later paragraph quoted Mr Frost as saying, “A system where half of all kids fail to get five decent GCSEs simply means that five years later we spend billions offering them remedial training to make them work-ready.”

So it would seem that the Mail did quote Mr Frost correctly. But how accurate is the actual claim? Do firms really pay the equivalent of the education budget on training 20 year-olds in work-related skills? And what is the empirical base for the assertion? I think any newspaper printing this allegation should at least have checked the source of the evidence.

Mr Frost bemoans the fact that 50% of school leavers don’t get GCSE Cs or above. The Mail bemoans this as well. However, the Mail also moans about grade inflation. You can’t have it both ways. Either the standard of GCSE C drops to a level which all pupils can pass, or GCSE C is restored to its equivalence with GCE ‘O’ level and then recognise that there will be a large number of pupils who don’t achieve GCSE C. And that shouldn't be used as a stick with which to beat the education system.

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