PISA – not just a league table

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Andrew Morris and Ian Nash comment on the latest PISA report

As ever, the latest PISA research triggered the usual blame game among politicians. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said it amounted to a condemnation of more than a decade of Labour Government education policies, while Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt said David Cameron’s schools policy is failing to confront the international challenge we face.

More heat than light was generated – with neither politician saying how they would address the myriad key points in the report. More to the point perhaps, not a word was said about what would be done to help further education colleges assist those young people who were the alleged victims of educational failure at 15.

The way the data were presented in the report this year was different; the OECD has put together clusters of countries that are not statistically significantly different from one another, although their scores differ slightly. So, on same level as the UK are: Ireland, Denmark, NZ, the Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, and Portugal.

Clustering ‘performance’ of countries in this way should make it harder for pundits to create bald league tables of winners and losers – not that this has stopped politicians or the media glancing at headline figures and sitting in over-hasty judgement.

Beneath the headlines, there are some key issues to bear in mind – as Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Deputy Director for Education and Skills pointed out at the briefing at the UK’s new Education Media Centre. PISA is statistical research; it is not intended as guidance about policy options. So it reveals patterns in data from a very large sample covering very many countries. As Dr John Jerrim of London’s Institute of Education commented at the EMC briefing,   PISA is subject to more rigour than almost any other educational research. And, while it is helpful for informing decision-making, it does not recommend policy options.

A reminder about the methodology may be helpful – it is based on three sources of data:

  • a two-hour test of 15-year-olds
  • a questionnaire for students about themselves, their home and school and
  • a questionnaire for school principals.

Improvements in performance are possible whatever the starting point – some low and some high performers have improved. This is true regardless of the levels of advantage. Some disadvantaged students perform highly against the odds (6% of respondents on average) especially in East Asia (13% of respondents).

If politicians and policy makers are looking for lasting policies that will deliver the goods, they need to concentrate on the implications of far more valuable observations in the PISA report than just the league positions. The most telling are those to which all major parties in England adhere. For example, it is important to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms and there is a relationship between teacher shortage and disciplinary climate.

Moreover, a high-quality teaching force is a key driver of high performance, the PISA data shows. Two findings are key here: first, the quality of a school (or college) cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Second, principals of disadvantaged schools have difficulty attracting well qualified teachers, so disadvantaged students can suffer doubly.

But it is worth noting again that this is not a policy judgment nor an observation about whether teachers are best trained in university or in the educational workplace. It is an assertion based on detailed observation and data collection.

Much has been said in the media about the influx of migrant groups such as the Roma undermining provision for the indigenous population The PISA report shows that “the concentration of immigrants in a school is not associated, in itself, with poor performance.”

Nor is it a question of fairness. High-performing school systems tend to allocate resource more equitably across advantaged/ disadvantaged schools. Also, combining high performance with a high degree of equity is possible – it happens in some countries.

Another observation, with which all political parties would claim to be in tune, is that “schools with more autonomy over curricula and assessments tend to perform better when they are part of a school system with greater collaboration between principals and teachers”.

So, rather than sniping across the political garden fence, politicians should try to build a consensus around policy options that improve performance and equity. Four such actions which the PISA report clearly identifies are:

  • targeting low performance regardless of socio economic status
  • targeting disadvantaged pupils through additional resources or finance
  • improving the quality of teaching staff, focusing on time for teachers themselves to learn
  • including marginalised students in mainstream education.

The report has much to say about the students themselves. From the outset, the need for a good start is clearly identified. For example, the report shows, one year of pre-school improves performance in maths by one year of schooling.

Also, later in their education, the report says: “Too many students do not make the most of the learning opportunities available to them because they are not engaged with school and learning. Drive, motivation and confidence in oneself are essential if students are to fulfil their potential”. It also confirms that “better staff-student relations are associated with greater student engagement”.

And finally, a note for the Boris Johnsons of this world who would bring back academic selection in highly-stratified systems tend to be less motivated. So politicians of all hues should search this new PISA report for what motivates students, teachers, parents and others, not what provides the short-term advantage and a chance for political advantage or gainsay.

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