‘Government Fails On PISA Delivery’ may well have been the headline for Michael Gove’s nightmares this week as the OECD published the detailed findings of its latest survey of educational performance across the world. For all of the changes announced and the rhetoric expended about education, Britain stood still in these ‘league tables’.
Whilst I would not wish reading the full report on any non-educationalist, the media discussion of our ‘position’ in the ‘league tables’ was partial, and potentially misleading. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report by the OECD covers much more than just a ranking of different countries and has much that should provoke thought in all educational systems across the world.
Children in the Shanghai region, which tops the performance statistics, are said to be at least three years in advance in their Mathematics performance than the world average. Despite the stereotype of rote learning in Asian schooling systems the OECD argues that this performance is based on a deeper conceptual understanding of Mathematics than in other educational cultures.
According to the OECD report the key feature of successful education is the ‘absolute belief in excellence for all’ and a ‘zero tolerance of failure’. If you consider the level of debate on education among politicians, and more widely in society, in the last generation you will realise the amount of time that has been spent on recrimination and ideology (selective or comprehensive education, or independent or state schooling) rather than ensuring a ‘zero tolerance of failure’. The road that you live in or the parental job background has too often been used as an explanation (excuse) for poor results. An old fashioned attitude of ‘whoever you are we expect you to do your best’ sits ill at ease with the culture of our times.
However, we also need a system of exams that challenges the pupils to achieve. The new Mathematics GCSE to be introduced in 2015 will require much more independent problem solving and conceptual understanding as is favoured by the OECD. More importantly one should perhaps ask why exams have not expected this of our teenagers over the past twenty years.
Whilst the media were generally downbeat about Britain’s performance, bemoaning our position below Vietnam, Switzerland or Shanghai and using the data to score political points, other significant factors were overlooked. The changes in this country to introduce more rigour into GCSE and A Level qualifications have yet to take effect. Also largely ignored was the fact that British children appear to enjoy school and have positive attitudes and behaviour in comparison to most other countries.
Whilst there are many things that we can take on board about the nature of the content we teach we should be careful what we wish for. All the leading countries in the performance data also lead the tables on high stress levels, pupil dissatisfaction and high suicide rates.
An education that allows pupils to thrive by international standards and yet be comfortable as themselves and enjoy life is what our children deserve from their education.