Simon Pia: A failure to get top marks

Graduation day in Hefei of Anhui Province, China. Picture: Getty Images
Graduation day in Hefei of Anhui Province, China. Picture: Getty Images
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SCHOOLS in Scotland have not been performing well when compared with other countries like China – a major worry for politicians writes

Simon Pia

As pupils across Scotland sit exams that will shape their future, the beleaguered SNP education secretary, Mike Russell, can no doubt look ahead to July when he will be able to pat himself on the back as national results once again show an expected year-on-year improvement. Tory Michael Gove, a Scot who is the education secretary at Westminster, will be doing the same.

However, a more realistic and less parochial assessment of how well our education system really is performing would be to examine the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests for 2012. While more visionary educationalists worldwide now eagerly await them, increasingly politicians are becoming nervous of what they’ll show.

The assessment was set up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2000 and conducts its tests every three years. This year, Pisa will tests more than 500,000 pupils in 72 countries to measure their skills in maths, reading and science.

Its head, Andreas Schleicher, says: “I don’t think of Pisa as being about ranking, it tells you what’s possible, how well could we be doing.”

To date, Scotland and the UK have been barely scraping a pass mark. Top of the class in 2009 was Shanghai-China which, along with other Asian countries, is beginning to leave western nations lagging behind. But a point Schleicher is keen to make is how a relatively small improvement in the skills of a nation’s workforce can have very large impact on its future well being.

What is particularly interesting is Pisa identifies systems, methods and policies that can have a universal application and need not be determined by different cultures or nations. One basic area it has measured is the long-term benefit of parents reading to children in their first year of schooling and the how the performance of children who continue reading for pleasure throughout their schooling improves significantly. This may be obvious, but it is an area in Scotland, for instance, which surely demands a far more vigorous government intervention.

However, there is also more recent Pisa evidence which is particularly uncomfortable and challenging for Scotland and other western countries, and is causing great discomfort in the United States. The evidence suggests many education systems took a wrong turn in the 1970s when they lowered expectations for poorer children. Evidence from China and other parts of Asia emphatically shows this need not be the case, and that children from disadvantage backgrounds can perform just as well as more privileged counterparts.

Higher expectations and challenges need to be demanded from all pupils, regardless of their backgrounds, and the educational system can be geared to achieve this. Pisa evidence shows it can work if there is the political will, collective effort and a positive cultural attitude.

Already some American educationalists have held their hands up and admitted they have set the bar too low in the past. The Obama administration is taking on board Pisa data and the US secretary for education, Arne Duncan, says of Schleicher: “He understands global issues and challenges as well as or better than anyone I have met.”

Meanwhile, year-on-year league tables in Scotland continue to have the depressingly familiar pattern with usual suspects lined up with private schools at the top, “middle class” state schools not too far behind and “sink estate” schools at the bottom.

But Schleicher says international evidence shows poverty is no longer destiny. “You can see this at the level of economies, such as South Korea, Singapore.”

He describes the idea of accepting lower expectations for poorer children as the “big trap in the 1970s. It was giving the disadvantaged child an excuse – you come from a poor background, so we’ll lower the horizon for you, we’ll make it easier. But that child has still got to compete in a national labour market.”

Schleicher believes education is too traditional and inward-looking. “As a system, you can find all kinds of excuses and explanations for not succeeding. The idea of Pisa was to take away all the excuses. People say you can only improve an education system over 25 years – but look at Poland and Singapore, which have improved in a very short time. We’ve seen dramatic changes.”

The biggest lesson of the Pisa tests, he says, is showing there is nothing inevitable about how schools perform.

The first Pisa tests, in 2000 and 2003, identified Finland as a world leader, but by 2009 Shanghai scored the highest in the world in every category – maths, reading and science.

Both countries shared a common policy which differentiates them significantly from UK and US, and that is in their attitude to teachers. Both made a deliberate choice to raise the status and calibre of staff. Salaries were increased greatly, but teacher training became far more rigorous and selective. There was also push for high-quality principals.

In Shanghai, they went even further. To get promotion, you had to show you had turned around a failing school while the best teachers were rotated to the worst performing schools in the region. The quid pro quo was that teachers were to be held accountable for results, but also allowed more creativity in methods they chose to use. Reforms were also made to the curriculum and exam system. Schools were also given the power to hire and dismiss teachers as part of a combination of autonomy and accountability.

China had abandoned its focus on educating a small elite which dated from the post-Mao era, realising a successful economy needed to construct a more inclusive system, and overseeing it all were government education officials almost of whom had been teachers, in contrast to the civil servants and academics who steer policy in Scotland and most western countries.

Since 2009, Schleicher has taken the Pisa to 12 other provinces in China, and even in poor, rural areas there was a remarkable level of performance. What particularly impressed him was the schools were often the most impressive buildings whereas in the West, it is more likely to be a shopping centre.

He says: “You get an image of a society that is investing in its future, rather than in current consumption.”

But Shanghai and China apart, the Pisa data shows internationally there is little correlation between spending and student achievement. This is true for both per pupil spending, and for a nation’s wealth. Many high-achieving nations spend proportionately less on education than other countries who have lower rankings.

Pisa claims it shows how well a nation or education system uses its talent pool. If most students score consistently on the top end of the scale, rankings go up, and so does the nation’s economy.

A close study of 2012 data, by not just the education secretary but teachers and educationalists, will throw up lot tough questions, but also possible avenues for reform and inspiration for policy initiatives. But what will it say overall about Scottish education – could do a lot better?