X Close

Institute of Education Blog


Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Is a preschool PISA what we want for our young children?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 August 2016

Peter Moss
Since its first outing in 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment, widely known as PISA, has become highly influential in the education world with its three-yearly assessment of 15-year-olds in a growing number of countries around the world. Now the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA’s midwife and parent, plans a new offspring, the International Early Learning Study (IELS). An international assessment of early learning outcomes among 5-year-olds, IELS is intended “to help countries improve the performance of their systems, to provide better outcomes for citizens and better value for money…[by showing] which systems are performing best, in what domains and for which groups of students…[and providing] insights on how such performance has been achieved”. (more…)

Ten sure ways countries can turn away international students

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 October 2015

Simon Marginson.
The pursuit of global mobility in a world divided up into nations invokes a fundamental dilemma. Free passage without harassment is a right we routinely expect to exercise whenever we travel abroad. Yet the right of people within a country to determine who enters their nation is enshrined in law. This unresolvable tension between sovereignty and mobility catches international students in its grip.
More than 4.5m students cross borders every year for educational purposes, mostly entering English-speaking countries, Western Europe, China, Japan and Russia. The great majority of these students return home when their education ends, though some become skilled migrants to the country of education, or other countries. Nations compete for international students – every country wants high-quality research students (more…)

TALIS: A complex and realistic picture of teachers and teaching around the world

Blog Editor, IOE Digital25 June 2014

Chris Husbands 
What do we really know about teaching and teachers in England’s schools? What is teaching in England really like by comparison with other jurisdictions? Too often, discussions about teacher effectiveness, teacher appraisal, professional development and job satisfaction appear to be based on a sample of about one: massive over-generalisation from the specific instance.
So the publication of the OECD TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) 2013 data for England is important. This is not the first TALIS – that was in 2008 – but the first to include England. TALIS covers lower secondary teachers in 34 countries, and the OECD reports its findings over 440 pages of dense text and charts. The English report, itself 200 pages long, was written by an IOE team led by John Micklewright and provides the most extensive data we have on teachers and teaching. The sample is still not enormous – 154 schools and 2,496 lower secondary teachers – but the response rate was very high (75% compared to just 17% in the DFE Teachers’ Workload Diary) and, importantly, this is the first survey to cover both state and independent schools.
Micklewright and his team deliberately do not come to an overall conclusion on what TALIS tells us about the state of secondary teaching in England. They try to tease out what the data say about different issues, framed as a set of questions – but it is for the reader to draw conclusions.
The result is fascinating: a treasure trove of data and graphs, which allow us to make informed comparisons across the OECD. Politicians and the press always ransack reports like this for the simple answer which tells us that “if only” we were more like [fill in name of organization or country] then everything would be different. But the TALIS report is more complex and realistic. There are differences between countries, but they evade easy generalization.
Take teacher workload: TALIS confirms that teachers in England work hard: a working week of 46 hours, one of the highest in TALIS and 9 hours more than the average. In only three of the sub-sample of high performing jurisdictions is the figure higher: Alberta (48 hours), Singapore (48 hours) and Japan (54 hours). But teaching time in England, at 20 hours, is close to the international average. This gap between working hours and teaching is a puzzle because English schools have significantly more teaching assistants and administrative staff than across the OECD. But it may be a result of high levels of autonomy enjoyed by English schools; examination of the TALIS data bears this out, suggesting that the difference is because English teachers spend slightly more time on each aspect of their work: planning, marking, and administration.
Or take classroom management. Across all OECD countries, a quarter of teachers report losing a third or more of time to classroom disruption. But in most respects England is at or better than the TALIS average. 21% of teachers in England say they have to wait for students to quieten down at the start of lessons, but this is below the median for all countries (27%) and below all high performing jurisdictions except Japan. Teachers in independent schools report better behavior than teachers in maintained schools or academies, but of course independent schools teach a more socially selective population.
Micklewright’s team look carefully at variations between schools, and conclude that classroom climate is correlated with the make-up of the school intake, and, more, of individual classes. And, there is evidence that disciplinary environment improves in smaller classes – of course, smaller classes are preponderantly found in independent schools. Even so, two thirds of teachers report a positive classroom climate. It’s in these classes that teachers are likely to use a variety of approaches including group work, extended investigation and information technologies. Teachers are more likely to teach like this if they participate in professional development involving individual and collaborative research, visits to other schools or teacher networks. Or consider findings on continuing professional development. Overall, there is exceptionally high engagement with CPD in England: 92% report some CPD in the last twelve months, but the number of hours spent on training is relatively low: high participation, low volume. And for all the rhetoric that continuing professional development is not simply about ‘going on a course’, courses and workshops account for the vast majority of CPD; just 45% of English teachers reported CPD involving ‘working with a group of colleagues’.
There are some insights into CPD quality, which tell us that CPD on the most challenging aspects of teaching is the least effective. Across TALIS, just 13% reported that training on teaching in multi-cultural or multi-lingual settings had an impact on their teaching; the figure was 8% in England. Figures on SEN training are similar.
But there are reasons to be positive about what CPD can do: across the OECD as a whole 66% of teachers thought that subject-focused CPD had an impact, and 50% thought that  CPD focused on pedagogy had an impact. The figures varied between countries. Both were lower in England, and higher in the nine highest performing jurisdictions – but before that becomes a policy line, we note that 73% of teachers in the eight lowest performing jurisdictions also reported a positive impact from CPD in their subject! Teachers in schools with higher levels of deprivation were more positive about the impact of CPD. Taken as whole, the OECD claim a correlation between regular collaborative professional learning activities and teachers feeling more confident about their capabilities.
TALIS suggests that England has a near universal system of teacher appraisal. Compared to the OECD as a whole, Micklewright’s team characterizes England as a “high feedback country”: 99% of teachers report receiving feedback. But schools are not making the most of it. Only about half of teachers (and this is a consistent figure across the OECD) felt that feedback enhanced efficacy.
It’s on self-efficacy – teachers’ beliefs about their ability to influence learning – that the English report concludes. There are variations between teachers’ sense of their effectiveness. But variation within schools is much greater than that between schools. Teams and departments matter. There is no difference between independent and state-funded schools, nor between affluent and deprived schools. Instead, the IOE team conclude that self-efficacy is highest when teachers report strong professional relationships, but they conclude that causality is unclear: it may be that teachers with high self-efficacy build good relationships, or, by working in teams with good relationships teachers become more confident.
It’s this puzzle, like so many others, which the report for England is so good at illuminating. It offers immense detail, but never at the expense of the underlying key questions. It challenges practice and policy on the basis of rigorous analysis, which is what really good research should do. It is balanced between strengths and weaknesses and clear-headed about international comparisons. It will be reduced, and perhaps traduced, in press headlines, but deserves serious research and policy attention on how we can best shape the teaching profession.

AERA reminds us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 April 2014

Chris Husbands
The annual conference of the American Education Research Association cannot really be described: it has to be experienced. Every year, it attracts almost 20,000 education researchers, not just from North America but from the entire English speaking world, and, in the last decade, increasingly from East Asia. So any individual experience of the conference must still be partial.
For five days, AERA takes over the downtown of a large American city, so the sheer logistics of running the annual conference must be mind boggling. The conference programme is the size of a telephone directory and about as readable: even the app which has been available for the last few years takes some navigation. You have to really know what you are looking for to master the search function, but if you only want to browse it’s difficult – although the AERA2014 app does contain abstracts for the thousands of papers.
In essence, AERA is not one conference but several. AERA is organised into 12 divisions, from administration, organisation and leadership (Division A) through to Education Policy and Politics (Division L), taking in Measurement and Research methodology (Division D) and Learning and Instruction (Division C) with much else besides. Each division runs several parallel sessions at any one time. Then there is the conference of the highlights: the large, set piece lectures and panels led by genuine global stars such as Diane Ravitch (this year on the challenges of quality and equality), Andreas Schleicher (this year on why we should care about international comparisons), Charles Payne (in 2014 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act) and Linda Darling-Hammond (on issues in the validity of high stakes assessments): their sessions fill the ballrooms of large hotels, standing room only.
Then there is the conference of the post-doctoral researchers, for whom AERA is a grand hiring fair – a good 20-minute performance reporting on your doctorate to a room of perhaps nine people can be instrumental in landing a prestigious position. And of course there is the conference of the corridors: knots of people meeting up to compare experiences of research funding and research policy, to complain about their miserable lot, to plot and to scheme and to gossip, to broker deals and agreements – people who have not seen each other since San Francisco last year and won’t meet again until Chicago next year.
And the range is huge: to deploy some (all too frequently observed) stereotypes, sessions on structural equation modelling led by earnest young think tank econometricians in sharp blazers, sessions on the endless reverberations of race in American education full of lively, disputatious people of colour, sessions on urban school reform led by harassed school superintendents looking for better teacher or school evaluation strategies.
This year’s conference (April 3-7) was in Philadelphia – the conference is always in one of those vast American cities where a wrong turn at one block will take you into parts of town where you’ll come across urban Americans uninterested in the finer points of methodology – and its over-arching theme was “the power of education research for innovation in practice and policy”. Barbara Schneider (Michigan State University), this year’s president, chose to speak about the “college mismatch problem”: why American teenagers from poor backgrounds apply to universities of lower status than their grades could get them into; Ruby Takanishi from the New America Foundation and Rachel Gordon from the University of Illinois looked at what we are learning from universal preschool education.
There are major methodological innovations: the impact of learning analytics on the knowledge base for lifelong learning, what the evidence is saying about recent immigration and its consequences for education. But all this makes it sound too ordered. Opening the telephone directory programme randomly I find ”an Australian perspective on inequality and education”, “blacks, hip-hop and the sociocultural milieu”, “dental school deans’ perception of dental education costs”, ”does teacher and student race congruence help or hinder student engagement in ninth grade science”, “ the common core standards and teacher quality reform” , and “comparing three estimation approaches for the Rasch Testlet model”: and on and on through literally thousands of sessions.
It’s almost impossible to discern trends, though economists seem to be growing in number and influence; ‘big data’ and its promises and pitfalls pre-occupy more people; and even in America – that most inward looking of melting pots – questions of international comparison and globalisation are more than ever in evidence. Being at AERA is a reminder of the similarities and differences between American and English experience in education.
There are some common themes: the relationships between quality and equity, between social structure, education experiences and performance, between the dynamics of research and the dynamics of policy. Others look similar but are really different: academies, for example, are not, in the last analysis, quite the same as charter schools. Others are genuinely different: the American experience of urban school reform is not the English experience; America’s experience in curriculum reform and teacher education has been quite different from England’s.
AERA is always simultaneously disorienting – you inevitably feel you are in the wrong place, that there is a more interesting and important session just around the corner – and energising – thousands of exceptionally able and engaged people enthused about education, and above all reminding us that education research is part of a genuinely global discourse.

University rankings and the aristocracy of merit

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 March 2014

Simon Marginson

We can wonder why the world has taken to university rankings. Perhaps there is a deep longing for hierarchy, even aristocracy, in the human soul.

The celebrity culture suggests this. But unlike the older kind of aristocrats, the status of modern celebrities is mostly temporary. ‘Public opinion’, led by the tabloids, loves to push new celebrities up and then pull them down.

After all, ours is a democratic age, in which fame is determined by merit rather than by birth—and comparative merit can always be contested. We live also in a market age, and there is a market in status, in which no one stays on top for a long time unless they have much money (in markets, money always ranks high).

Thus it is with university rankings. A leading position in the university league tables is often insecure, especially in those rankings that have been deliberately designed to be volatile, which at global level are QS and the Times Higher Education.

In an aristocracy of merit, only those universities with the strongest inherited reputations and the deepest pockets, the Oxfords, Harvards and Stanfords, are guaranteed a position near the top. Other universities have to work at it.

Why should we have to work at it? After all, rankings are a distraction from the core business of a university: teaching, scholarship, research and public service. Competition between institutions does not necessarily improve their work and might drain precious resources away from teaching and research. Higher education institutions should be encouraged to cooperate, not compete.

All true. The problem is that global rankings, which originated largely from outside the higher education sector ten years ago, have become entrenched as a competitive process and as the main source of public information (a highly simplified and often misleading one) about higher education.

We can no more vanish rankings into a point simply by wishing for it, than we can snap our fingers and obliterate the £9000 student fee.

And there are costs if we ignore rankings. Institutions with a declining rank suffer over time, losing their attractiveness to students, staff, government and public. As stewards of their institutions, university leaders are obliged to take steps to maximize the ranked position of their institutions over the course of their tenure, even while pursuing other, often contrary, objectives. It is especially important to achieve this in the global university rankings, which are more significant than UK national rankings, especially outside UK.

How then does a university perform well in the global rankings? It depends which ranking.

  • The Shanghai ARWU is based entirely upon research performance, measured by the number of Nobel prizes won by former students and held by current staff, the number of high citation researchers, articles in Nature and Science, and total citations to published research papers;
  • The Leiden and Scimago rankings measured the number of published journal papers and the rate these papers are cited by other scholars;
  • Webometrics measure the number of web pages and hits on those pages;
  • The Times Higher Education ranking measures academic reputation for both teaching and research, research output, number of PhD students, income for research, international collaboration in publishing, quantity of staff (the lower the student-staff ratio the better), and the proportion of students and staff who are international (the higher the better);
  • The QS ranking is based on opinion surveys of both academics and graduate employers, citations per staff member, the student-staff ratio, and international students and staff.

All institutional rankings have one feature in common. They favour institutions such as UCL— comprehensive multi-discipline universities with high performing science-based faculties. This is especially true in research rankings, but also true of rankings that use opinion surveys, which are dominated by large universities.

Specialist single-discipline higher education institutions like the IOE cannot figure in the global rankings at all, except for those rankings that offer discipline-based league tables — the ARWU, Times Higher and QS. All three rank universities in terms of engineering, medicine, science and business. But only QS provides a league table in Education.

The IOE is invisible in the global league tables except on the QS website, where it currently sits at number one in Education. To stay there IOE must continue to excel in academic and employer surveys of reputation, and in research paper citations, and maintain high proportions of foreign-born students and staff. But Harvard, with its stellar reputation coupled to its sheer size (it publishes 64 per cent more journal papers than the world’s second largest science university, Toronto) can just go on being Harvard. Its ranking is not going to change.

Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the IOE, is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and of the Editorial Board of the Times Higher Education.

He will be giving a keynote speech on Markets in Higher Education at a conference at the IOE on 20 and 21 March 2014 – The State and the Market in Education: Partnership or Competition? organised by Llakes (the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies) and the Grundtvig Study Centre, Aarhus University, Denmark.

How class continues to drive the equality gap in England's adult skills

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 February 2014

Andy Green
The latest OECD Survey of Adult Skills (SAS) generated much commentary on the relatively poor level of adult skills in England – particularly the revelation that on both literacy and numeracy tests young people scored no better than older generations and worse than their peers in all other countries except Italy and Spain. There was less discussion about how skills are spread around the population, but this is just as important. On this dimension the news is no better, because the distribution of adult skills in England is very unequal.
There is a larger gap in literacy and numeracy scores between the highest and lowest achievers than in most other countries and the impact of parental background on skills attainment is stronger than in most countries. Despite some evidence of a narrowing in the dispersion of skills in England over the last 16 years, the skills of the youngest cohorts are still more unequally distributed than in almost all other countries.
Difference in Average Numeracy Scores of Top and Bottom 20 Percent of 25-29 Year Olds
There are large gaps in the skills of the 16-65 year olds, particularly in numeracy. Scores in SAS are measured out of 500 but the actual range of scores is much lower. In England the average score in numeracy of those in the lowest-scoring 20 percent is 153 points below the average score of  those in the highest scoring 20 percent. The gap in literacy scores is somewhat smaller at 134.3 points. Only two countries, France and the USA, are more unequal in numeracy and in literacy only Finland and Canada are more unequal. However, the situation for the younger age groups is even more alarming. For the 25-29 year olds there are no countries with more unequal skills distributions in either numeracy or literacy. England is also the only country where skills are as unequal amongst the younger age groups as the older ones.
England also does relatively badly on equality of opportunity – in terms of the degree to which social background influences skills attainment. The only country where the parents’ level of education has a greater effect on children’s skills attainment in literacy and numeracy is the Slovak Republic. Young people with graduate parents are likely to score 67 points higher in numeracy and 58 points higher in literacy than those whose parents only have GCSE level qualifications. English-speaking, ‘liberal’ countries generally show less equality of opportunity than other countries, and England and the USA the least.
Inequality of Opportunity in  Numeracy Skills for Younger and Older Age Groups
Inequality of Opportunity for Numeracy and Literacy for 16-24 Year Olds by Country Group
Why are adult skills in England so much more unequal than in most other countries? Some possible explanations can be ruled out. Differences between age groups play no part in England since the skills levels of younger age groups are much the same as for older age groups. Inward migration seems to contribute a small amount to adult skills inequality in England but no more than in most countries and rather less than in some. Adult learning does not appear to play a greater role in exacerbating the skills inequalities amongst adults in England than in other countries.
However, there is one likely explanation and that has to do with initial education. Skills and educational qualifications are very closely related. In England, each of the different age groups has a very high level of inequality in education qualifications compared with other countries. Since most qualifications are achieved before the age of 25 this implies that the initial education system has been producing very unequal outcomes going back to the 1950s. Our research (pdf) concludes that the primary cause of adult skills inequality in England is the exceptionally unequal skills outcomes of the initial education system sustained over a long period, fuelled and supplemented by an especially strong influence from social background.
The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Grant Number: ES/J019135/1
This blog post first appeared on The Conversation 

In Defence of OFSTED

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 February 2014

Chris Husbands 
No-one likes inspectors. The Daily Telegraph reports that TV licence inspectors are three times more likely to be attacked by angry householders than by angry dogs. In Montana, a furious meat processing company owner launched a physical assault on the food safety inspectors who had described his plant as “putrid”. RSPCA inspectors were assaulted almost 250 times in one calendar year. So Michael Wilshaw perhaps has some way to go as criticism appears to come not only from schoolteachers but – strenuously denied – unnamed briefers in the Department for Education, criticism which, he said, left him “spitting blood”.
School inspection in England has a long history. Her Majesty’s Inspectors were established in 1839, and the nineteenth century reports of inspectors remain as invaluable a source on nineteenth century education as the reports of factory inspectors on working conditions.  HMI developed world-renowned expertise in inspection, though their principal role was to provide information and advice to ministers: it was calculated in the 1980s that at the then current rate of progress, each school could expect to be inspected once every 250 years.
HMI was transformed in 1991. OFSTED was established. Every school was to be inspected on a four yearly cycle and – a critical development – the inspection handbook, which had hitherto been a closely guarded secret, was published as the framework for school inspection. Inspection arrangements, managed by OFSTED and overseen by HMI, were contracted out. The framework has been revised regularly since 1991, and the inspection cycle has been varied, but the principle remains the same: regular inspection based on published criteria. Other countries have also developed inspectorates, and Melanie Ehren from the IOE is leading a cross-national study.
There is little doubt that the twin measures of regular inspection and published criteria have exercised enormous influence on the system, and mostly for good. One of OFSTED’s early straplines was “improvement through inspection”, and the key idea of examining the performance of all schools on the same basis is one, albeit only one, of the measures which have helped to raise expectations of what is possible, of what schools can achieve.
The problems for OFSTED have often been not the inspection framework, nor the principle of judgements: all the research on education assessment and evaluation is clear that evaluative judgements based on public criteria matter. Instead, there have been concerns about variability in the quality of inspection teams, about the reliability of their judgements, about the interaction between a public inspection regime and an ever-tighter accountability framework, and the very serious challenges of sustaining improvement in the most challenging of schools: “improvement through inspection” is a good mantra, but has proved far more difficult to demonstrate in practice. Rob Coe from Durham University has identified the problems for OFSTED: inadequate training in classroom observation produces unreliable judgements about quality, and poor ability to interpret complex data makes it difficult for many teams to contextualise what they see. In a high stakes environment, these weaknesses have profound consequences.
In all this, the issue is, perhaps, less inspection than the weight which is hung on it:  as Melanie Ehren’s project is telling us, inspectorates can work in very different ways. As the reported disagreements between the Department for Education and first the Chief Inspector of Schools and now the Chair of OFSTED suggest, inspection is extremely important. It shapes the way governments, practitioners and the public think about the school system. There are some tough lessons from the history of inspection: there are always tensions between inspectors and policy makers; inspection judgements need to be nuanced as well as incisive; there are always limits to what inspection can do; inspectors stand in the perpetual militarized zone between those who would centralise education and those who would decentralise it. In practice, OFSTED really owns only one asset: its evidence base, still the most comprehensive and thorough evidence base on what happens in classrooms anywhere in the world. It is what makes OFSTED important and relevant, however uncomfortable its findings may sometimes be to read. The independence and integrity of the evidence base are of critical importance. It has been, and remains, a precious commodity in English education.

How Singapore is putting research into practice

Blog Editor, IOE Digital17 December 2013

Chris Husbands
Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories – transforming itself from a developing country to a modern industrial economy in not much more than one generation. As OECD observe, during the last decade, its education system has remained consistently at or near the top of most major world education ranking systems, its curriculum and assessment system prayed in aid of reforms elsewhere.
I was lucky:  I spent four days in Singapore as part of an international academic advisory group with colleagues from South Korea and Ontario, working with the Ministry of Education and National Institute of Education to look at the next phase of their education research and development strategy.
Singapore is beginning the third phase of an ambitious long-term programme of education research, and will spend something like $110m (about £50m – but in a school system just one tenth the size of England’s) over the next five years on how to scale up classroom and school interventions which work.
Increasingly, the Ministry is using rigorous research to understand what is going well and what is not: the 2005 TLLM [Teach Less, Learn More] initiative is not reckoned to have achieved its goal of aligning pedagogy with the demands of the emerging Singaporean economy. A fascinating piece of detailed research into pedagogy in Singaporean classrooms, conducted by David Hogan, has set out to explain why, and how to move beyond the performative pedagogy driven by a high stakes assessment regime.
In other areas, Singapore has used international research to move beyond stale debates: just as wars break out again in Anglophone countries between proponents of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’, Singapore has made extensive use of Marlene Scardamalia’s work on knowledge building to design continuing professional development for its teachers. Intensive work is being conducted by the Learning Sciences Laboratory on the use of computer games for learning, including the Statecraft X app for citizenship education. Manu Kapur’s work on ‘productive failure’ – essentially,  figuring things out with no scaffolds – has attracted the attention of  Time magazine.
Teacher education is critical. In the 1990s, after  a series of teacher shortages, Singapore began to evolve a strategy for teaching, putting in place conditions that raised the prestige of the teaching profession, providing new teachers with the best training, and putting in place extensive retention and professional development packages. Theory and practice are strongly linked in teacher education, and increasingly linked through the e-portfolio which all teachers use.
For all this, many of the pre-occupations of the Singaporean government and academics were curiously familiar: the performance of boys, the differential performance of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, the place of the arts and culture in education, the relationship between technology and effective teaching, the engagement of lower attaining pupils in the mathematics curriculum, the role of education in a culturally diverse society.
Others echoed education debates which rage back and forth in England, for example, the worry that highly competitive examinations drive teacher behaviours which do not promote good learning. One senior government official lamented that for all the high test scores, “we have a lot of studies in Singapore which show us that children can score highly on maths tests without understanding mathematics”. There is huge concern about the impact of a steeply hierarchic secondary school system on overall performance. For all the concern with citizenship education, the school system still operates under tight political constraint.
But what Singapore does have is a superbly designed delivery system for education. There is a clear strategic focus on policy from the ministry of education, which is staffed by ferociously able civil servants, many with PhDs, based on broad consent across politicians and professionals. The place of the National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University is key in translating policy into action and undertaking research which feeds back on the impact of policy. Whilst it can be seen as a monopoly provider of teacher education, leadership development and education research, the fact that NIE is the only provider gives it and the ministry a clear strategic role on leading the system.
But as one senior civil servant told me “even within a small system [just 30,000 teachers], it is not always a given that different sectors can work well together. It has taken us some years to build the structure and culture for things to come together.  Ultimately, people are the key”.

PISA 2012: welcome to the Education Circus

Blog Editor, IOE Digital2 December 2013

Paul Morris
The results of PISA 2012 will be announced tomorrow. Billed in the media as “education’s Olympics”, it compares the academic achievements of 15-year-old pupils around the world, ranking them according to performance and developing a compelling narrative of “winners” and “losers”.
From previous exercises, we can expect an epidemic of reform proposals as policy makers in England and those who seek to influence policy attempt to identify evidence as to: which countries are successful; what works elsewhere; what features can be borrowed to improve the lot of low performers. These questions will be pursued under the rationale of developing (or maintaining) ‘world class’ schools.
It will be portrayed as an objective/scientific exercise in evidence-based policy making, a straightforward case of learning from the best. Yet this portrayal has not, in contrast to other countries such as Germany, characterized the prevailing approach in this country to date. Rather, the PISA data, along with other international tests, have most often been selectively raided to defend and promote the preferred ideologies and preferences of those who make and seek to influence educational policies. The appropriate maxim is less “show me the evidence and I’ll decide policy” and more a case of “I know the right policy, I’ll find the evidence for it.”
I illustrate this point with two examples of how such tests have been appropriated to support existing views, opinions and prejudices about schooling, and add a note of caution.
The first example comes from the recent release of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) on Oct 8. There was significant media coverage of the poor results recorded for the UK’s 16- to 25-year-olds and the following propositions were advanced by pundits to explain the poor results: young people give up mathematics and English too early; the absence of a performance-based pay system for teachers; the poor quality of teachers; the lack of discipline in schools; the dumbing-down of the curriculum; low investment in further education; the reduction of resources for young adults; and grade inflation.
Some of these claims were supported by reference to the opposite feature operating in a country that performed well. If however one ventures into the PIACC report none of the above school focussed “explanations” featured in the OECD’s attempt to explain the results in the UK. They identified social background (the children of parents with low levels of education have significantly lower proficiency than those whose parents have higher levels of education) and the nature of employment (low skilled jobs limit the development of skills) as the major impact on the levels of performance in UK.
The second case is the Coalition Government’s 2010 White Paper on Education, which was based on improving England’s position in international league tables by learning from high performers. As the Foreword explains:
… Alberta to Singapore, Finland to Hong Kong, Harlem to South Korea – have been our inspiration. 
Two main problems were identified: the quality of teachers and the lack of school autonomy. Where the White Paper argues the need for high quality teachers it relies heavily on a report by McKinsey & Company that cites as its evidence Finland, Singapore, South Korea and other high performing countries in the 2006 PISA exercise. However, when the McKinsey report later promotes the value of multiple and shortened routes for teacher education, the evidence to support this claim is not derived from any high performing country in PISA. Rather it uses evidence from Charter Schools in the USA and the Teach First scheme in England.
The White Paper uses the same strategy and promotes the need for multiple, shortened and school-based teacher education programmes, which are not a feature of the high performers. With regard to school autonomy, the White Paper bases its claim on the assertion that “everyone knows it is effective” studiously avoiding reference to the McKinsey report, which argued that there was no connection between school autonomy and pupil performance. Subsequently in 2010 the OECD argued that there is no simple relationship and that forms of autonomy designed to foster competition between schools, as is the case in England, did not improve results.

Finally, a note of caution before the circus rolls into town. I have written elsewhere about how some consultancies and think tanks tend to utilise these reports to promote competition, markets and a small role for the state, in the processes making some dubious claims about causality.
We would do well to avoid getting sucked in by the hysteria, and be wary of methodologically and ethically dubious “cure-alls” which will be flogged by educational pundits.

Yes, there is an alternative to England's bewildering school system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital29 November 2013

Peter Mortimore

I have been aware of problems in the education system for as long as I can remember.
As a child growing up in the late 1940s, I was persecuted by the fear of failing the 11+. Both my elder sisters had succeeded and my first brush with probability theory was recognising that similar success for me had to be questionable. And for 80 percent of each generation it was so, with many children bearing this hallmark of educational failure for the rest of their lives.
One of my jobs as a young teacher was in a school with 12 classes streamed on the basis of three timed tests. The validity and reliability of such assessment was highly questionable, yet it determined the course of future lives. One of my – very clever – pupils moved up a stream each year but, because he only stayed for the five years of compulsory secondary schooling, never even reached the upper half.
As a classroom researcher in the 1970s I sat through hours of lessons often in poorly designed, uncomfortable classrooms.  Some lessons were stimulating but others were desperately boring regurgitations of an uninspiring syllabus.
Today the education system, in many ways, is much improved.  Yet urban eleven-year-olds and their parents face a bewildering array of schools. City parents, in such a market economy, have to gamble on which preferences to express, taking into account their geographical location, the SATs results of their offspring, their religious (or non-religious) leanings and their willingness to pay for private tuition.
Academies – answerable only to the Secretary of State – founded with the noble aim of providing a better deal for poor children (just like the “public schools” of past centuries) are re-positioning themselves and using their generous resources to attract pupils with the best odds of success. Free “parent-led” schools are popping up even where there is ample provision and are frequently dedicated to particular faiths. Exams appear to be growing more difficult and universities are getting more expensive. Most sadly, English childhood appears to be much less happy than that of many of our neighbouring countries.
The English education system seems as far from a universal, inclusive, system as it ever was. Yet, the best teaching I have seen anywhere has often been in England and, in general, schools seem well-led. I believe these problems have been caused by recent governments’ (from all political parties) determination to turn the education system into a competitive market economy complete with league tables and punitive inspections.
In contrast, the Nordic school systems that I have observed operate in a different, happier, culture. They provide high quality pre-school provision and admit children into school one or even two years later than in England. The pace of learning is more relaxed and, wherever possible, failure is avoided.  Nordic young people continue developing and frequently overtake the ‘English early starters’ and become well-educated adults.
So what can we do to improve the system?  How can we learn from our North European neighbours? How can we draw on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of our current arrangements?  And how can we persuade our Government to create a fairer, happier and more effective education system better suited to life in the 21st century?
My proposals are to try and ensure greater fairness in the system:
• Fairness in all funding: no more favoured schools getting large bonuses. The only payment above actual costs should be an extra sum for pupils with special needs.
• Fairness in governance – with all schools having uniform powers and working within the same national context.
• Fairness in what can be taught – with a limited National Curriculum available to all pupils.
• Fairness in licence to innovate in organisation and pedagogy.
• Fairness in inspections – with the aim being to ensure that all schools are above an acceptable level rather than attempting to fine grade them  on the basis of unreliable – and very limited – knowledge.
•  Fairness in assessment – helping as many pupils as possible reach the highest levels rather than seeking artificially to restrict success on the mistaken Kingsley Amis principle that “more will mean worse”.
•   Fairness in the allocation of pupils to schools so that all schools recruit a “balanced intake” – pupils who find learning easy and those who do not; those coming from relatively advantaged social, cultural and economic family backgrounds and their opposites.
Of course these are huge challenges. My suggestions require much elaboration and refinement. They will be resisted by the politicians associated with the current system and by parents satisfied with the privilege enjoyed by their children. Other people will have to be convinced that what is proposed will be better.
But such a set of ideas offer a chance of solving the worst problems and of creating a fairer education system better suited to life in the 21st century.
I’ll be talking about these ideas at a seminar at the IOE on 10 December. hope you will come along and contribute to the discussion.