This week saw the publication of the latest PISA rankings: a league table of different countries’ education systems which is compiled every three years by the OECD. The tables compare the scores achieved by sample groups of 15-year-olds from each country who sit tests in reading, maths and science. The general consensus across most of the media, from the BBC to the Telegraph is that the rankings show the UK “falling behind the rest of the World.” Is this fair? The answer, I’m afraid, is a definite, resounding “sort of.”
The main headlines are that the UK has improved its position considerably in the science table (from 21st three years ago to 15th in the most recent rankings), improved slightly in reading (from 23rd to 21st) and dropped slightly in maths (down from 26th to 27th). The UK students’ average scores in the tests were actually remarkably similar to three years ago so all these movements are affected more by other countries’ relative performances than by a decline or improvement in our own standards. They’re not actually bad results and they’re all above the OECD average. The overall conclusion one can draw about the education our young people are receiving is probably the same as the conclusion one would have drawn 3, 6 and 9 years ago: education in the UK is ok.
These rankings are subject to several criticisms, not least that many supposedly-higher performing countries and administrations are able to effectively cheat by excluding lower-performing students from the tests. There are also questions to be asked about how the culture and economy of a given country feed into the rankings. Does an inherently more egalitarian country where education is more widely-valued such as Finland (or, in a very different way, Singapore) simply have a much better chance of succeeding than its more unequal rivals such as the UK and the USA? If so one could question the notion that PISA rankings are assessing education systems at all (rather than entire societies and their attitudes.) There is also, of course, a debate to be had about whether the narrow subject focus of the tests is sufficient to encapsulate all or even most of what constitutes good education.
Nonetheless, the Tory government has made improving the UK’s performance in these rankings the cornerstone of its educational agenda. In so doing they gave themselves a luxury they would never grant to teachers or schools: the right to choose the way their own success should be measured. And still they appear to be falling short. Schools have been closed and rebranded, the curriculum and exam syllabuses have been torn up and replaced with a narrower, more knowledge-based alternative and all this upheaval has brought about an unprecedented crisis in teacher retention and recruitment. And the signs are that it simply hasn’t been worth it: the government is not fulfilling its own stated aims. Young learners have had their opportunities to engage in sport, art, music, drama and practical, vocational skills curtailed on the altar of a vision of “academic rigour” that simply hasn’t materialised.
To make matters worse, the direction of travel being taken from here doesn’t offer any cause for optimism either. PISA’s own director of education Andreas Schleicher warned earlier this year that an increased focus on setting and selection (the apparent core of the government’s agenda since Theresa May entered Downing Street in July) can only be to the detriment of its position in the rankings.
So the overall message the country should take from these PISA rankings is mixed but their verdict on our government and their education policy is pretty unambiguous: to use Ofsted’s terminology, they have been served with a seriously damning Notice to Improve.