PISA: no victory for Michael Gove

Michael Gove was Education secretary when the 2012 PISA results came out. He expressed alarm that England seemed to be falling behind Shanghai and Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. He wanted to make England a future “winner” in the “global race”. He insisted that academies, harder exams, performance pay for teachers and school-based teacher training would enable England to catch up with the “best-performing school systems in the world”.

There are of course deep problems with this narrow-minded, ultra competitive way of forming education policy, as if education was about nothing more than a test in reading, maths and science. Surely education has more serious global concerns, including the very future of planet Earth. But let us look at the consequences.

Gove and the National Curriculum

Gove had already set about altering the National Curriculum, setting impossibly demanding targets with no regard for each child’s age or readiness.

He rejected a public warning, in an open letter signed by a hundred leading education experts, that his “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” would lead to “rote learning without understanding.” The professors and researchers warned that:

“This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think – including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

One of the letter‘s coordinators, Michael Bassey, commented to the press that pupils would “memorise just enough detail to get over the hurdle of the tests”. The other, Terry Wrigley, added: “I think if these reforms go ahead it will be miserable for the children.”

Gove’s response was simply to lambast the education experts as the “blob”, the “enemy of promise

Sacrificing young people

The 2018 PISA results, just published (Dec 2019), vindicate the education experts’ concerns.

Firstly, they confirm that Gove has made children’s life a misery. This reinforces earlier studies raising alarm at stress and mental health. According to the official report, pupils in England were

“less satisfied with their lives than pupils across the OECD countries. They were also more likely to feel miserable and worried and less likely to agree that their life has a clear meaning.”

Secondly, a narrow high-pressure curriculum was teaching lists of facts at the expense of real education. Compared with other countries, young people in England expressed negative attitudes to reading, and fewer said they read for pleasure. 53% ticked the statement “I read only if I have to” (compared with 41% in a previous PISA study). 56% said “I read only to get information I need” and 30% said “For me, reading is a waste of time.”

Gove and his Conservative successors have sacrificed children’s education and wellbeing to “winning a global race”.

But did it work?

Despite this terrible sacrifice, the gains have been… well, not exactly earth-shattering.

  • In Science, England scored 9 points less than in 2012.
  • In Reading, it scored 5 points more.
  • In Maths, it went up 9 points.

This is a very modest improvement, given that the gap between England and Singapore, for example, is 44 points in Reading and in Science, and 65 points in Maths.

Even this evidence of improvement is unreliable. As John Jerrim, of the Institute of Education (University College London) and Education Datalab, points out, there are serious problems with the sampling in the case of England.

Nearly a third of the schools chosen by OECD as its sample failed to take part, and in addition nearly a fifth of pupils chosen were somehow absent or unavailable or unwilling. Compounding these factors, the English survey used only 60% of the original sample compared with 80% in Scotland. No explanation has been given and it is quite possible that this has artificially inflated England’s score.

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