Read a reaction to the PISA report by Angela Rayner, Shadow Education Secretary
Last week the Education Policy Institute hosted the global launch of the 2015 PISA results—the educational performance of 15 year olds across the world.
The results of PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) are always fascinating, and receive a huge amount of attention both in the UK and internationally. But there need to be health warnings, not just about data quality and cultural factors but about timeliness. To a large extent we are looking in the rear view mirror, and should be cautious about inferring any causation from recent policy changes.
So, in England, for example, we will not know for some time whether the changes to curriculum, qualifications and accountability carried out by the last (coalition) government have been successful or not.
Notwithstanding these reservations, what do we know about performance in the UK, including in our individual nation states? Well, the UK’s overall absolute performance and ranking has changed very little over the last decade. We are a higher performer internationally, but not yet a global leader.
And within the UK there are some observable changes—with falls in science scores in Wales and Scotland, and in maths scores in Scotland. Scotland now appears to be lagging England on many measures, and Wales is well behind the rest of the UK. Following devolution, we are now seeing much greater variation in education policy across the UK, and we need to ensure that we learn the lessons from this.
What else? In England and some parts of the UK, we have some outstanding high achievers, for example in science. There are only three countries—Singapore, Taiwan and Japan—where the top 10 per cent of pupils are more than one school term ahead of their peers in England. However, the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in science is also bigger in England than in many other OECD countries.
The relatively poor performance in maths stands out as a big weakness of England’s education system. The lowest maths performers are behind those in Northern Ireland and Scotland. And the gap between the highest and lowest performing pupils in maths in England is equivalent to a shocking eight years of schooling.
Socio-economic gaps in performance are large in England, too—for example, the gap between the most and least advantaged 25 per cent of families in science is almost three years of schooling.
What policy conclusions can safely be drawn from PISA? Well, uncomfortably for Theresa May’s government, we can see that early selection of students by ability is associated with wider socio economic gaps in outcomes. To put it bluntly, there seems to be no evidence from PISA that more grammar schools will help poor children to scale the social mobility ladder.
A number of countries—including the United States—have recently seen big progress in narrowing the gaps between rich and poor children. This has variously been achieved by focusing more resources on disadvantaged pupils and aligning a range of policies to make this a key objective. From this we can conclude that large socio-economic gaps can be reduced—with the right policy interventions.
Finally, the highest performing school systems place a strong emphasis on teacher recruitment and on high quality teacher training. This may need to be a higher priority in the UK. The PISA data suggests that English secondary schools have much greater than average problems in recruiting the right staff. In England, recent governments have placed a strong emphasis on structural changes in school organisation to drive up standards.
PISA implies that the UK might usefully give more attention to developing a high quality teacher workforce.