The headline news is that England remains in a group of schools where the outcomes measured by PISA are good. People might look to extract far reaching conclusions, for or against this or that policy, from minor changes in scores or positions; statistically these are likely to matter little. We’re good, not great, and stuck.
If you want to know a bit more about the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) the video below is a great place to start.
Whilst some people will want to blind you with statistics I’m more interested in some of the big messages that may explain why we are good and stuck rather than a top international performer in PISA. The simple answer, by the way, is we pursue the wrong policies and implement the right ones badly or not at all.
More Selection: Yes or No?
Following a pointed question, about plans to extend Grammar schools, Andreas Schleicher managed to answer, dodge and extend the debate. The international evidence is pretty conclusive: selection doesn’t work in terms of improving a country’s education system in terms of its PISA score or ranking. The earlier selection happens the more damage done. England has relatively low levels of selection by school, don’t introduce more, but high levels of selection within schools, in terms of streaming and setting pupils compared to other systems internationally. Whether you have selection by schools or within schools the disadvantaged lose out and the inequity becomes greater. The highest performing systems tend to have high equity; disadvantaged pupils attain as highly as their more advantaged peers. England’s mediocre outcomes in terms of equity are holding it back; less selection not more is required. Just a note, I’ve no doubt the Department for Education and possibly some of its ministers will want to say how well students in Grammar schools performed in PISA to further their current folly. Of course these pupils do well, PISA is in part an attainment test; the comparison to comprehensive or secondary moderns schools is nonsense.
Less Truancy & Better Behaviour
“One of the goals of teachers is to create a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. This requires, first and foremost, keeping noise and disorder at bay and making sure that students can listen to what the teacher (and other students) say and can concentrate on academic tasks.”
In many countries the truants and poorly behaved pupils are concentrated in a relatively small number of schools; mostly schools in disadvantaged areas. There was a negative correlation with truancy and poor behaviour and high science outcomes in PISA. There are too many initiatives aimed at schools in disadvantaged communities that don’t get down to the basics. A parent once said to one of my SLT, “You only have to f**t in this place to get excluded.” Now I never have excluded a pupil for f**ting but you do need to run a tight ship when your work in challenging areas. The limited funding for the new Opportunity Areas could be well spent on ensuring pupils turn up to school and behave once they are there. Teachers can then do their thing.
Enough Funding is Enough
I can almost feel the hate daggers being directed at me by colleagues; it seems once you have enough funding then more wouldn’t lead to better outcomes as measured by PISA. There is a direct correlation between more funding and outcomes to a point; after that the graph essentially plateaus. It is what you do with the funding you have that is important. Remember that this is at a system level so it’s hard to implement some of these ideas at a school level; government has a part to play. It just needs to focus on things that matter.
School systems that spend very similar amounts of money as each other spend it on vastly differing things. We’ve tended to go for a middling approach on class size, teacher pay and planning, preparation and assessment time (non-contact time) for teachers. But the middle ground might not be a good place to stand. The evidence tends to suggest that the gut reaction, small class sizes are a good thing, is wrong. Class size matters little compared to the quality of teaching. Increasing class size and then increasing planning, preparation and assessment time may well be a better way to go. Increasing class size and increasing teacher pay so it is commensurate with other professionals may also be a better idea. Pity we’ve built class rooms 56 square metres in size, for 30 pupils. We need sufficient funding more equitably distributed and we need it as soon as possible.
The Biggest Takeaway
It’s the teachers, stupid. Highly qualified, well paid, working in an intellectually stimulating environment, trusted and autonomous, peer supported and supportive with access to high quality, high impact professional development teachers.
The National Teaching Service wasn’t a bad idea it was just hopelessly and incompetently implemented. If anyone from the Department for Education wants to make me an offer, I’m up for taking the £240 million just about to be squandered on pointlessly expanding grammar schools and set up a National Teaching Service that will move the teachers which have proven high impact on pupils’ progress to schools serving our most disadvantaged communities. If successful the outcome would be: higher equity in educational outcomes, PISA rankings to brag about …. Oh, and a more just and cohesive society.
The other half of the PISA 2016 Report is here, if you are interested.