February 2014


  • Sense of direction?
    A new special needs code of practice is being heralded by the government as ‘the biggest shake-up of special educational needs (SEN) in 30 years’. Jonathan Fawcett looks at what leaders can expect and sees some potential problems looming. More
  • Market forces
    In the third topic in the Great Education Debate (GED) series, Robert Hill explores the roles of autonomy and diversity, the twin pillars of reform. More
  • Behind the headlines
    Bad news stories about the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t give the whole picture of how our schools compare internationally, says Ian Bauckham. Nevertheless, PISA contains important messages that we cannot afford to ignore. More
  • Talking cures
    Access to professional counselling for students in school can help prevent deeper problems emerging later on, enabling students to realise all of their potential, finds Karen Cromarty. More
  • Warning signs
    Teacher recruitment is already down alarmingly in key subjects, says John Howson. So is 2014 set to be the year the teacher shortage becomes a full-blown crisis? More
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Bad news stories about the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results don’t give the whole picture of how our schools compare internationally, says Ian Bauckham. Nevertheless, PISA contains important messages that we cannot afford to ignore.

Behind the headlines

So we are an average nation again as far as educational achievement is concerned. That was the verdict of the 2012 PISA results, the survey of more than half a million students in 64 countries carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and published at the tail-end of the long autumn term 2013.

It was a sobering result for hard-working school leaders, many of whom feel as if the schools that they are leading are more effective and have greater accountability than ever before. As Theodore Roosevelt famously remarked, with more than a hint of self-deprecation: “I am only an average man but, by George, I work harder at it than the average man.”

The temptation, faced with this unwelcome news about the fruits of our labours, is to cast doubt on the validity of the results. We cite, for example, what we will diplomatically call ‘unfair advantages’ in some countries: exclusion of certain groups of students or schools, a highly developed culture of home tuition, cheering PISA-selected students into the exam room as if they were Olympic athletes competing for their country, and so on. And constructing question types of equal difficulty across a wide range of cultural backgrounds is always going to be subject to a certain margin of error.

But none of this means that PISA has nothing to say to us. Indeed, it is the most important global influencer of education policy, and untold millions have been spent on education reforms in countries as diverse as Germany and Mexico on the back of PISA outcomes. All political parties in the UK accept that PISA has messages for us.

So, getting behind the headlines, what are those messages?

Strengths and weaknesses

Let’s start with some strengths in the UK’s schools. In 2012, the main subject assessed was maths, with science and reading as subsidiary areas. We come out above average for science, and the proportion of top science performers in the UK is 11 per cent, compared with an OECD average of 8 per cent.

Students have more positive feelings about school here than the OECD average with 79 per cent feeling that they belong at school, 88 per cent feeling that they make friends easily, and 83 per cent feeling happy overall at school.

In terms of behaviour, 84 per cent of UK students said they are rarely or never disturbed in maths lessons, compared with an OECD average of 78 per cent.

An outstanding strength in the UK highlighted by PISA is the very small achievement gap in the maths achievement between children from immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds. It is far below the OECD average and speaks of the real success of our approach to educational integration and this particular aspect of social equality.

And our weaknesses? First and foremost, we are only achieving at an average level in maths. Breaking that down, England and Scotland are on a par, with Northern Ireland a little behind and Wales further behind still. Overall, there has been almost no change in our performance since the last time that the tests were done in 2009.

Is this, you may ask, a verdict on the coalition’s education policies? Almost certainly not. The tests were taken in 2012, barely two years into the coalition’s term of office, and Professor Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education guru, is very clear that the earliest we would be able to discern any impact, positive or otherwise, is in the 2015 tests. We are alongside countries such as Denmark, France, Ireland, Latvia, New Zealand and Norway. The picture is very similar for the reading test outcomes.

‘Closing the gap’ is a major focus in government education policy. How do we fare in this in international terms? Once again, we are at the OECD average in the difference in performance between advantaged and less advantaged students. PISA also measures what is known as ‘resilience’ – the ability of disadvantaged students to overcome their disadvantage. Once again, we are broadly average with about a quarter of disadvantaged students overcoming their disadvantage. In the highest-achieving countries, more than half of disadvantaged students are ‘resilient’.

Decline in Finland

The countries that top the PISA league are in East Asia. Switzerland and the Netherlands are also among the top performers. Less publicised this time was the perceptible decline of the hitherto unassailable Finland, which has had a significant drop, and is one of only four countries where maths scores are falling at an accelerating pace. It is not clear why, but the increasing diversity of the population there may play a part.

Policy lessons

What is it the successful countries are doing? This is perhaps the most important question. First and foremost, they promote what PISA calls a ‘zero tolerance of failure’, that is, a refusal to countenance the idea that factors such as supposed intelligence or social background need to limit achievement. In the UK, many would argue that we remain too focused on these.

In some East Asian countries, teachers are no longer given data about the prior attainment of students in their classes for fear of capping expectations. And countries such as Poland, which have seen improvements recently, attribute some of their success to reducing the role of intelligence-based selection.

Autonomy for schools correlates well with PISA success, provided that some other conditions are in place, too. These include tough accountability and transparent availability of performance data, and there is no shortage of either of those in England. But they also include stable and widely understood standards, and teachers having a sense of involvement in the management of their schools. Here many would say that we still have some way to go.

Teaching as a high-status profession, well-paid teachers and demanding entry gateways into the profession all feature strongly in the most successful countries, as do effective approaches for getting the best teachers and leaders into the most needy places. Closely targeted spending matters a lot more in the most successful countries than average-per-head funding matters.

The way that maths is taught is also a factor. In the highest-achieving countries, there is a focus on ‘translating’ everyday problems into mathematical problems, and interpreting the results, rather than just solving ready-formulated questions. What PISA calls ‘formal’ maths also plays a bigger role, alongside applied maths, in the most successful curricula.

Does it matter?

That is all very well, but do we know for certain whether good PISA results for an individual actually correlate with success in later life? If they don’t, what is the point in chasing PISA improvements? Sensitive to this criticism, PISA is currently conducting longitudinal studies, in particular in Canada, which have not been concluded yet, but that seem initially to point to a good correlation between being good at PISA-type maths and later career success.

So why should all this matter? Do we want to emulate the workaholic culture and high teenage suicide rates of places such as South Korea? Clearly not, and simplistic policy importation will not work anyway. And we certainly don’t want to start drilling students in PISA-like tests because ‘when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure’.

Many high-achieving East Asian countries remain very interested in what we do in the UK to foster creativity and wellbeing. If they learn from us in these areas, it is unlikely to be at the expense of their own achievements. If we can learn from other countries’ areas of success to improve our students’ life chances in the globalised jobs market, without throwing the baby out with the bath water, we should certainly do so.

  •  Ian Bauckham is ASCL President.