3 Dec 2013

Children of Blair are overtaken by Ireland

Today’s release of international educational standards league tables was profoundly depressing for any Brit. Standards have fallen very slightly in maths and reading. Stagnation has occurred despite extra spending, reform, re-education.

Other countries are improving their standards. I spotted that Ireland has now overtaken the UK (by a modest amount) on maths (591-494), reading (523 – 499) and science (522- 514). If you are an idiot who makes Irish jokes, well the graph below shows the joke is now on you. Poland (518, 518, 526) too. We are going backwards, relatively.

Meanwhile the east Asian countries are absolutely motoring ahead, with the existing gap opening up even further. This challenge goes well beyond education policy, teachers’ unions, per capita spending, grammar schools, free schools etc.

Differences in these types of tables are decades in the making. But this comparison does not reflect well on Blair’s promise for “education education education” at the heart of his new Labour government (and don’t forget the Blair government failed to make the Pisa assessment in 2003). These, after all, were the results of children born in 1997.

These numbers, compiled by the OECD Pisa survey, are partly a reflection of clear differences in educational values between different nations. As a nation we undervalue education, perhaps not of our own children, but of other people’s. The constant diet of media moronification does not help. Yes, there are statistical issues with Pisa, but the relative direction of travel is abundantly clear.

See more: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-UK.pdf



Follow Faisal Islam on Twitter.

11 reader comments

  1. Andrew Dundas says:

    If the USA & UK are such poor educators, how come they’re getting richer than the other rich nations?
    One explanation is that these two ‘anglo’ States are also more unequal in average incomes. Which aligns with these results: both have persistent under-achieving students who hold their national averages way back.
    But isn’t IMAGINATION important too? Albert Einstein used to say that sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge, and this may actually be part of the explanation too. Some leading PISA winners regret their lack of creativity.
    But neither excuses our teaching focus on students likely to get 5+ good GCSEs. And our indifference to those who lag below that yardstick.

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    You make a fundamental mistake.

    When Blair said, “Education, education, education,” what he REALLY meant to say was, “PFI, PFI, PFI.”

    As you know, PFI started under the last tory to win an election, John Major. It was his contribution to the growth of tory ripoffs in EVERYTHING. Blair the neocon simply continued and intensified it.

    Prior to that, the Thatcher era ran down the schools building/rebuilding programme. Hence, when Blair came in education was a ripe profiteering apple waiting to fall into the hands of the usual construction spivs. All you have to do is consult the public record for what that programme did to education standards. A reasonably aware citizen didn’t need this latest data to confirm it.

    Then along came Michael Gove, a man with the face and intellect of a dead fish. What do you expect from somebody in direct line from Thatcher the Milk Snatcher? Human sensitivity?

  3. Neil Craig says:

    “Education” is run not by parents, or politicians or even teachers but by teacher’s unions and the PC educational mafia. The difference between teachers and teacher’s unions is that the average teacher wants to be allowed to teach & has little sympathy with incompetents in their midst while teacher’s unions exist to provide job security for incompetents & keeping numbers up. Unions always oppose firing the useless or bonuses for those who produce good results. So do the PC mafia with a side order of making “teacher trainers” important and ensuring totalitarian propaganda, like catastrophic global warming is shoved down the kids’ throats.

    Thus class sizes become a more important measure of success than results.

    In fact the evidence is clear that class size is, up to about 50 pupils, unimportant, whereas being taught by either a good or bad teacher is vital. That does not mean one who has been through “teacher training” & got the certificate, it means one who teaches successfully.

    If good schooling were really the objective then the best thing they could do would be to fire the 10% of worst teachers. That would greatly improve results. Obviously it won’t be done.

  4. Stephen Elliott says:

    I understand you may have been provided a copy of this essay. I see no reflection of its contents on the Channel 4 News on Pisa 2012

    Why Michael Gove should follow India’s lead and
    detach himself from PISA

    Just ahead of the publication of PISA league table on 3rd December, India has withdrawn from the list of countries which will feature in the tables. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, on the other hand, seems determined to stick with PISA despite recent concerns – published in the Times Educational Supplement in July of this year – about the global league table.

    Mr Gove’s Department reiterated its support for PISA in a recently-aired Radio 4 programme entitled “PISA – Global Education Tables Tested.” That programme illustrated the dangers inherent in critiquing PISA in exclusively statistical terms. Statistical modellers have made life too easy for PISA because they simply accept the PISA interpretation of the construct “ability.” It is only when the focus moves to measurement that the profound difficulties inherent in PISA come to the fore with greatest clarity.

    Niels Bohr is ranked with Newton and Einstein as one of greatest physicists of all time. The father of atomic physics taught that “unambiguous communication” is the hallmark of measurement in quantum physics. Importantly, Bohr traced measurement in quantum mechanics and measurement in psychology to a common source, which he referred to as “subject/object holism.” The physicist cannot have direct experience of the atom, just as the teacher cannot have direct experience of the child’s mind. The microworld manifests itself in the measuring instruments of the physicist just as mind is expressed in the child’s responses to test items. Both the physicist and the psychologist are forced to describe what is beyond direct experience using the language of everyday experience. Bohr demonstrated that measurement in quantum physics and in psychology share a common inescapable constraint, namely, one cannot communicate unambiguously about measurement in either realm without factoring in the measuring instrument. In Heisenberg’s words: “what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our form of questioning.”

    The lesson we learn from Bohr is that in all psychological measurement, the entity measured cannot be divorced from the measuring instrument. When this central tenet of measurement (in quantum physics or in psychology/education) is broken, nonsense always ensues. The so-called Rasch model, which produces the PISA ranks, offends against this central measurement principle and therefore the ranks it generates are meaningless. According to Bohr, the entity measured and the measuring instrument cannot be meaningfully separated. According to PISA, they are entirely independent. Who are we to believe, Niels Bohr or Andreas Schleicher?

    The following simple illustration will help make Bohr’s point. Suppose Einstein and a 16 year-old pupil both produce a perfect score on a GCSE mathematics paper. Surely to claim that the pupil has the same mathematical ability as Einstein is to communicate ambiguously? However, unambiguous communication can be restored if we simply take account of the measuring instrument and say, “Einstein and the pupil have the same mathematical ability relative to this particular GCSE paper.” Mathematical ability, indeed any ability, is not an intrinsic property of the individual; rather, it’s a joint property of the individual and the measuring instrument.

    In short, ability isn’t a property of the person being measured; it’s a property of the interaction of the person with the measuring instrument. One is concerned with the between rather than the within. It’s hard to imagine a more stark contrast between Bohr’s teachings and the PISA approach to measurement. Critiques of PISA by statistical modellers, however, have missed this profound conceptual error entirely.

    My bookshelves are groaning with books concerned with the wide-ranging debates around the notion of intelligence. All of these debates dissolve away when one eschews the twin notions that intelligence is either a property of the person or is an ensemble property, for the simple definition that intelligence is a property of the interaction between person and intelligence test. To say “John has an IQ of 104” is to communicate ambiguously. An ocean of ink has been spilt because intelligence researchers have missed the simple truth that intelligence is not something we have.

    In closing, it is only when the PISA critique shifts from statistical modelling to measurement, the profound nature of PISA’s error becomes clear. PISA produces nonsense because it misconstrues entirely the nature of ability. I trust this essay will be a comfort to those who had the courage to remove India from PISA, and hope it will prompt a similar decision from Michael Gove.

  5. James Mackenzie says:

    Hi Faisal

    I didn’t see in your report or Jon’s any explanation of the questions in the tests, and the scoring. Are the tests ones of regurgitation of facts and rote learning of basic techniques or do they test skills and an ability to think? Are the results absolutely related to the questions and the scoring the same every year or are they relative? Have the questions changed over time? How accurate a reflection of the school population is the sample of pupils tested? Appreciate the links on your site to OECD and hope they explain. Our education has traditionally been said to emphasise the development of personal values and of skills to cope with change over rote learning. If this is so, do our school students do better in university and life? Are the “cultural” and other factors mentioned important explanatory values, is the continual denigration and bullying of teachers rather than empowerment and trust in them helpful? Would they get better results if they were paid like bankers?

  6. Lorraine Gill says:

    I am a Scottish primary school teacher who is dismayed that in John Snow’s interview tonight no reference was made to Scotland having a very different education system to the one in England. Instead all discussion related to policies adopted in England and Wales and the views of Michael Gove who has had no influence at all over Education here in Scotland at all . Please could you be accurate in your reporting to reflect regional differences as viewers could justifiably believe that you are at best dismissive if not ignorant of this. I too think that ultimately we all want every child to achieve their potential . The hope is that in developing a Curriculum for Excellence along with a policy of educating all Scottish teachers to degree level will give our children the required skills to achieve and compete and importantly live as contributing and rounded adults in our modern world. Society as a whole has to take responsibility for this as we cannot separate education from cultural and social influences. Consider the results in China in this light.

  7. James Mackenzie says:

    Have you and your colleagues tried the OECD maths test that your indirectly link to? Can you get to level – achieved by 31% of Shanghai pupils and 3% of ours – and claimed to be a demonstration of ability to conceptualise and make your own model. What nonsense – you just need the right formula and basic add/subtract/ multiply. If our children were drilled in this test they could do it no problem, just as they do when drilled in the government’s tests.

    1. Philip says:

      I did the PISA maths test & agree with you. Level 6 is complicated, but the formula could easily be learnt by rote. I wonder whether any of these countries curricula are focused on achieving good PISA scores? I confess that I feel you need a balance between “the basics” and teaching children HOW to learn, how to work with others, how to be effective citizens. But I feel our children have been utterly let down by politicians (& Gove is only interested in PISA because he wants the children of the serfs to be taught the basics & PISA results encourage that, while enabling him to denigrate Labour’s record. (One might point out that a lot of awful school buildings have been replaced). But he is just the latest in a long line of meddlers, whose changes have largely not been founded on evidence, but on misinterpretations, opinions, or the views of the teaching unions. We need a national approach which will bring together all those directly & indirectly concerned with our children’s education (including businesses – and children, former pupils) which will set out an agreed national strategy which politicians cannot alter without a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons. The failure in English (not Scottish) education isn’t particularly related to PISA but to the failure to make the most of the talents of our children through under-investment & wrong priorities & constant meddling, over-regulation and unintelligent assessment.

  8. Neil Craig says:

    Last night C4 made a specific point of the government refusing to produce a spokesman and thus had an interview solely with a Labour one.

    C4 know perfectly well that Britain has 3 large parties. In this year’s council elections UKIP got 23% of the vote to Labour’s 29% and everybody is preparing for UKIP to top the poll in next year’s EU elections.

    If C4 were not deliberately censoring UKIP would be allowed to speak on policies nearly as often as those 2 parties. If C4 were only 50% totalitarian censors they would be reported nearly half as often.

    There is a demonstrated correlation, worldwide, between state ownership and control of broadcasting and authoritarianism, government corruption and government failure. Britain is no exception.

    Will anybody at C4 (or the equally state owned BBC) even attempt to justify censoring political discussion (& regularly lying to promote false scare stories like catastrophic warming) in what is undeniably the totalitarian cause?

  9. anon says:

    It would be interesting to know the demographic details of the samples tested. Were any private schools included?
    Educational testing for the basics is very important in order to assess the criteria needed to raise overall literacy and numeracy standards which as shown are not matching up to many other nations.

    This is an area where much work is needed. However I think it is more a situational and social standing problem, where for many education is not desired. Achievement is often met by sarcastic comments such as
    ‘Aren’t you clever,!’ or ‘ Getting too good for the likes of us.! ‘
    In other words upward social mobility is feared by many. Achievement is met in some circles with fear that their offspring might move away from home both physically and socially and it is discouraged and mocked.

    Identity for under achievers is often drawn from lo- life role models on TV and movies .

  10. Stephen Hammersley says:

    Dear Faisal

    Today UK Community Foundations released our “Shine a Light” report – independent research shining a light on how and why communities matter to people in the UK.

    The report shows that, contrary to popular myth, communities are vibrant places of potential and promise where people are active and want to do more to transform peoples’ lives for the better. It also found that people think that education locally is a success story. Is this a case that illustrates “we are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.” (Margaret Mead)

    The headline findings of our research are

    § 22.6 million (44%) adults give money to their local community

    § Half (52%) of all adults would contribute more if it were easier to give locally in a way that meant they could see the direct impact the donation had

    § Being more involved in community has seen one in seven (14%) increase the amount they give to local causes in the past two years

    § Young people are part of the solution to the challenges society faces, being more committed to doing more than any other demographic

    What is really exciting is how the research re-enforces what we know from our work as the only UK-wide charity that helps people and companies fund community led charitable action. We know that our communities are hurting, but the research tells us that the inspirational people whom we already help to befriend the lonely; unlock unrealised potential; and support the disadvantaged are but the tip of an iceberg. Most people want to do more and most want to give more to support them.

    That is why today community foundations across the UK are launching a campaign to raise, by 2020, an additional £1 billion of new funding for community led action the UK. This is ambitious, but achievable, and would lead to sustained transformation as community foundations connect people who have money and a passion for change with people who have the same passion but a capacity to “do” that is constrained only by a lack of funds. A vision of society powered by networks of “doers” powered by “donors” in every community is a big vision that is worth realising.

    Back to education. Are local people right – education may have its challenges but its good, or are the boffins who do the global rankings right? If schools are to prepare children for a future that is unknowable I’d rather back the views of local people..

    Best wishes

    Stephen Hammersley CBE

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