X Close

IOE Blog

Home

Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

Menu

Counting the benefits of mandatory Maths – and how to avoid making skills inequalities worse

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 January 2023

Secondary school student writing sums on a classroom whiteboard

Credit: Phil Meech for UCL.

Andy Green and Neil Kaye.

If nothing else, Sunak’s recently announced plan for all students in England to study Maths to age 18 generated a rich crop of maths related puns in the media. Our analysis shows the plan should be welcomed, at least in principle, as a long-overdue reform – but also how implementing such a policy without the requisite strategic and financial backing would likely lead to wider skills gaps and a worsening of the inequalities already seen amongst young people leaving upper secondary education.

England is amongst a small minority of OECD countries which do not require the study of either Maths or the national language throughout upper secondary education (ages 16-18) (the others being Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the other UK nations). Furthermore, less than half of students in post-16 education study Maths as a discreet subject, many of them instead on courses to re-take GCSE Maths, in which only 20 per cent passed at grade (more…)

AHELO, Agoodbye: league tables, power and the market

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 October 2015

Chris Husbands.
One of the universities I worked in ran an advertising campaign for which the strapline was ‘It’s not the letters after your name that matter: it’s the name after your letters’. At the time, it attracted a good deal of criticism from within the university. This was reducing higher education to a mere positional good, placing value on the degree only in terms of its relative value against other universities. It was the language of competition and league tables, not the language of the intrinsic worth of higher education.
(more…)

Students, Computers and Learning: we could do so much better, and here’s how

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 September 2015

Rose Luckin
The 200 page report published this week by the OECD is packed with tables and figures that tell a story about the state of 15-year-olds’ educational attainment in maths, reading, science and digital skills in 2012 across the participating countries.
The negative message from this report has received considerable publicity: countries that have invested heavily in ICT for education do not show improved student achievements in reading, mathematics and science. Less use of the internet is linked to better reading performance and frequent use of technology in school is linked to lower performance. The UK did not participate in this study, but findings being presented to the British Educational Research Association today (Thursday) appear to back it up.
All this sounds very depressing, but it is not the key message we should take away from the report. Instead we should be (more…)

Introducing East Asian teaching methods into western schools: is it a good idea?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 June 2015

John Jerrim.
About six months ago I released a paper discussing the reason for East Asian success in the OECD PISA survey of 15 year olds’ skills and knowledge in reading, mathematics and science, focussing largely upon the role of home background and culture. I have been somewhat overwhelmed by the number of people who have shown an interest in this paper and who have contacted me about this work since. Today, I present some evidence on the other side of the story – the ‘impact’ of East Asian teaching methods on children’s mathematics test scores. (more…)

A National Teaching Service Mr Mainwaring?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 14 October 2014

Chris Husbands
The news of a proposed re-make of Dad’s Army preceded by only a few days David Cameron’s announcement of a National Teaching Service: a ‘corps’ of ‘elite teachers’ to be deployed into ‘failing schools’ at short notice. Both depend on stereotypes too obvious for comment. If Bill Nighy was an all-too-predictable casting as Sergeant Wilson, it’s easy to imagine the images that a National Teaching Service might conjure.
In so far as it’s a good idea, I’ll claim some credit for it, since the idea of taking a more strategic approach to the deployment of teachers was one I developed at the beginning of 2013 in my contribution to The Tail. In so far as it is a bad idea as now developed, of course, I’ll distance myself from it, and note (for the avoidance of doubt, the next clause is dripping with irony) that it has lost something in the movement from elegant inception to (more…)

The election battleground: heat and light – and the basics

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 October 2014

Chris Husbands
The party conference season is over and it is election-preparation time: before the end of the school year, voters will have gone to the polls and a new government will be in office. There are sharp choices to be made for all major parties: whether to offer consolidation, recognising the radical changes to curriculum, assessment and school structures introduced since the Academies Act of 2010, or to strike boldly out for more change. For the Conservatives, celebrating at their conference that more children now attend good and outstanding schools, there must be a temptation to consolidate, to build bridges with teachers and make Michael Gove’s legacy work, rather than unleashing yet more potentially disruptive change. For the Liberal Democrats, claiming credit for the pupil premium which offers schools additional resources for poorer pupils, the aim is both to ensure that they get the electoral credit for an imaginative approach to school funding and to identify a further totemic policy to carry forward. Perhaps choices are most acute for Labour: (more…)

East Asia top performers: what PISA really teaches us

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 October 2014

John Jerrim
It is no secret that East Asian children excel at school. For instance, 78 percent of ethnic Chinese children obtain at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades, compared to a national average of just 60 percent. Yet, despite some very interesting qualitative work by Becky Francis, we still know very little about why this is the case.
I explore this issue in my new paper using PISA 2012 data from Australia. Just like their counterparts in the UK, Australian-born children of East Asian heritage do very well in school – particularly when it comes to maths. In fact, I show that they score an average of 605 points on the PISA 2012 maths test. This puts them more than two years ahead of the average child living in either England or Australia. They even outperform the average child in perennial top PISA performers like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.
(more…)

Financial literacy is not just about maths: why PISA should rethink its test

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 July 2014

Ian Marcouse
One mis-selling scandal after another has highlighted how bad adults are at managing their own financial resources. They trust the wrong people and believe in the wrong advice. The ease with which payday lenders found customers shows the difficulty people have with APR (annual percentage rate) figures. Even taking out a current account is fraught with risk. For young people about to stack up a huge amount of debt at university, financial literacy is vital, if only to avoid their parents’ mistakes.
The UK Government sought to tackle the issue last year by announcing that financial literacy would become a compulsory part of England’s national curriculum – included both in mathematics and citizenship classes. This covers about half the state schools in the country – with academies and free schools allowed to opt out.
Unfortunately, new findings from the OECD suggest that there is virtually no correlation between the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy in classrooms and students’ ability to answer questions on the subject. Nor did it matter much whether financial literacy was taught by teachers of mathematics, economics/business or social sciences.
But could their analysis be misleading?
The OECD’s PISA programme administered a two-hour test to half a million students from 16 countries to try to assess young people’s financial literacy. These countries included the US and China, but not the UK.
The report, published this month, showed a very high correlation between PISA results for mathematics and those for financial literacy. Consequently China (Shanghai) came top by a large margin, while the USA performed below the 16-country average. Bottom came Colombia. According to the PISA findings the most important factor by far was how well the respondents had been taught mathematics.
But these results were not surprising, as the questions were strongly weighted towards numeracy (such as checking the accuracy of an invoice). An alternative explanation might be that this weighting made the correlation with maths results inevitable. If the questions had been focused on a critical approach to financial issues and products, the results may have been different.
The research looked at many variables that might determine student performance at financial literacy. It concluded that the amount of time spent teaching financial literacy had no effect. For example teachers in the United States spend a particularly long time on the topic – to no discernable benefit on test results. Furthermore the quantity of teacher training had little impact on the results. On average about half of all teachers of financial literacy had received some training on the subject – but to no avail. (The quality of the teacher training was not assessed.)
Other variables that proved unimportant included country GDP per capita, gender and social background. More important was direct experience: those with a bank account came out with higher scores than those without.
Specifically the PISA report says, in answer to the question: “What can be done to enhance financial literacy?”

  • Having a bank account is a better predictor of financial literacy than anything you do in the classroom.
  • Teaching financial literacy is a poor predictor of success at financial literacy in these tests
  • Where financial literacy is taught as a separate subject (such as the USA) performance is not strong.
  • Volume of exposure to financial education has no correlation with performance on the tests

From PISA’s viewpoint the findings are clear: teach mathematics in a more conceptual, abstract manner (as in Shanghai) and students will be in a better position to apply their understanding to real contexts. The question remains: is the extremely high correlation between maths and financial literacy simply a result of the construction of the tests? If so, policy makers should take great care about drawing conclusions from PISA’s exercise.
What was the purpose behind such a numerically-driven series of questions? There are many other factors in financial literacy, such as questions about past problems and scandals (Bernard Madoff; Charles Ponzi) plus the pyramid schemes that young adults can often be caught up in. There is the fundamental problem of asymmetric information, in which the seller of financial products knows so much more than the buyer. These issues were not addressed.
This leaves two possibilities: either teaching financial literacy is a waste of time (the PISA conclusion) or perhaps PISA did thorough research based on the wrong questions. In 2015 they will repeat the exercise (and may include Britain this time). Let us hope they think hard about whether they want to repeat the questions.
 

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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 25 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.

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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 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
chart1jpg
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
 chart2
Inequality of Opportunity for Numeracy and Literacy for 16-24 Year Olds by Country Group
chart3
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