The UK’s performance in international education rankings continues to be mediocre. Sandra McNally outlines what can be done – and notes that if things don’t improve, future economic growth is at stake.
The latest international survey of the educational performance of teenagers (PISA) shows that the UK is still performing at the OECD average. Although there are some problems with comparing PISA results over time, it is safe to say that the UK has been consistently average since the mid-2000s. This is widely regarded as very disappointing for such a (relatively) prosperous country.
PISA measures the application of knowledge in everyday situations. For a more positive view of UK performance, one could always look at TIMSS (another international survey), which is curriculum-based and closer to what students are tested on in the UK education system.
What does the UK’s ‘average’ performance in PISA (yet again) say about the raft of recent reforms in educational policy? Not much! If you want to know what policies do (and do not) work, they need to be carefully evaluated. There are no short cuts. For a synopsis on policy recommendations based on robust evidence, see the LSE Growth Commission report.
An overall measure of achievement (and its change over time) reflects ALL the inputs that influence educational performance. And these include parental inputs to a greater extent than what goes on at school. We shouldn’t think that educational performance of children will be unaffected by their parent’s economic situation. Indeed, in light of the recession, it is something of a relief to see that the UK has not slipped down the league tables.
It is also important to note that differences within countries are often at least as great as differences between countries. For example, if you look at equity in outcomes (chapter 2 of the PISA report, Table II.2.2), the maths achievement gap in the UK between the lowest quarter and highest quarter of students (in terms of socio-economic group) is higher than the overall gap between the UK and Singapore (one of the leaders in the PISA survey).
If the UK is to improve its performance, it needs to do more to facilitate the improvement of students at the bottom end of the distribution (who are often from poor backgrounds). The ‘long tail in the distribution’ is where the biggest problem is. Within schools, the OECD (and many academics) think that teacher quality is the more important input and there is good evidence for this. (See for example, here). It is important to attract and retain high quality teachers – careful selection into the profession and flexible remuneration are all important and are likely to be helped by recent reforms.
But teachers also need to have the incentives to focus their efforts on the low performing children (and not to ‘teach to the test’ and/or focus only on students who will make their schools look good in the performance tables). Thus, what goes into the ‘league tables’ is very important. And schools that exercise autonomy over their admissions have some responsibility to ensure that poorer students can access their schools. There is no need to prioritise by postcode; other options such as lotteries or ability banding are available. Finally, if education in the UK does not improve, it is future economic growth at stake. Not just the shame of continued mediocre performance in international education rankings.
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