THE latest  triennial set of the OECD’s PISA test results for 15 year-olds indicate that our pupils are doing a bit better. UK rises in international school rankings was the BBC headline.
So much, then, for all that hand-wringing over the impact of spending cuts on schools in recent years. It now seems that we can spend less and achieve more. Michael Gove’s much-hated educational reforms, especially the addition of bit more rigour to the curriculum, are beginning to have an impact, it seems.
With its customary respect for the evidence, the Beeb gave us the facts:
- In reading, the UK is 14th, up from 22nd in the previous tests three years ago
- In science, the UK is 14th, up from 15th
- In maths, the UK is 18th up from 27th
A 30-nation chart was provided to show How the UK compares in reading over time. We were 25th in 2009, 23rd in 2012, 22nd in 2015 and 14th in the latest, 2018, results.
What the BBC chart did not show was that had it been extended back further we would have discovered that we came 16th in 2006, 10th in 2003 and 8th in 2000, when the tests were introduced. In other words, we still have some way to go if we are to get back to where we were at the turn of the century. True, fewer countries took the tests then but those that were involved included a large majority of the developed countries with whom we compare ourselves.
The first PISA test for maths was introduced in 2003. We were ranked 17th as opposed to 18th now. When science was first tested in 2006, we achieved 13th position as opposed to 14th this time around.
The latest test results, therefore, need to be seen in perspective. We are not, yet, quite back to where we were twenty years ago, but we are, at least, heading in the right direction.
Nor should we read too much into our slightly higher position in science. The UK score actually fell but some other countries slipped even more and this allowed our rise in the ranking. Our rate of improvement was dragged down by Scotland slipping backwards in both maths and science.
A largely unreported finding of the latest PISA test results is the continuing decline in Finland. The performance of its schools has been hugely admired; not least by our educational establishment, the Blob. The Labour Party, indeed, ‘seeks to emulate Finland’s school system’.
The latest PISA tests results, however, show that in mathematics Finland has fallen from 2nd to 16th place since 2006. In the same period it has fallen from 1st to 6th in science and having been number 1 for literacy in both 2000 and 2003 it is now 7th. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the decline has coincided with a move towards less traditional and more child-centred teaching.
An understanding of our performance in the latest test results can, probably, best be achieved by looking at the table-topping performance of China. In the past, it has been criticised for putting forward only children from Shanghai. This time the provinces of Beijing, Jiangsu and Zhejiang also participated, making a combined population of around 180million. Their bottom 10 per cent performed better than the average for the UK even though we spend close to twice as much per pupil on schooling.
Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA test programme, has commented that English schools still have a long way to go to match the best in the world. He does, nevertheless, consider our progress to be ‘encouraging’.
If we are ever to catch up with the likes of Estonia and China, however, we shall need to focus a great deal more on teaching quality and methodology than on throwing more and more money at the problem. In how many other countries around the world, and at great cost, are the majority of school staff not teachers?
We also need to dilute the toxic classroom diet of political correctness and pseudo-psychiatry that is undermining a sense of wellbeing amongst our children. England was near the bottom of the OECD’s international league table for pupils’ life satisfaction.
The PISA test results, then, show that something has been achieved in recent years but there is still a very long way to go.