England outperformed Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the 2015 international PISA tests and it’s because of the ‘core-knowledge’ curriculum, Asian-style maths mastery and systematic synthetic phonics said schools minister Nick Gibb in a recent debate. He added it was also down to teachers’ efforts but the message was clear: the performance of English pupils in PISA 2015 was mainly caused by reforms since 2010.
It would be miraculous indeed if reforms which didn’t come into force until at least half-way through the Coalition years had much effect on 15 year-olds taking PISA in 2015. The National Curriculum, which isn’t even compulsory in academies, didn’t start until September 2014. And, as I’ve noted before in relation to synthetic phonics and maths mastery, evidence cited by Nick Gibb is only evidence approved by Nick Gibb.
Of course, Gibb could be talking about the CoreKnowledgeUK – the much-hyped syllabus rehashed from the US version written by E D Hirsch. But it’s not compulsory (yet) although it did influence the reformed National Curriculum. And, as noted above, this didn’t begin until just over a year before English 15 year-olds would have taken the 2015 PISA tests.
Before claiming credit for England’s top UK position in PISA 2015, Gibb should read the Government’s own report on England’s performance. It says ‘performance in England has not changed’: ‘The average science, mathematics and reading scores of pupils in England have not changed since 2006’. England’s ascent to the top was because of ‘changes in other parts of the United Kingdom, notably declines in average science performance in Scotland and Wales’.
England’s rise, then, was because scores in other parts of the UK declined.
What Gibb should be concerned about rather than puffing the supposed superiority of England is the poor performance of England’s low-achieving pupils. In science, the gap between high-achievers and the weakest is ‘bigger in England than in many other OECD countries’. In maths, the low performance of bottom achievers is a ‘weakness of England’s education system’. And the weakest 10% in England perform worse in maths than low-achievers in Northern Ireland and Scotland despite all three countries having similar average scores overall. So much for Gibb’s bragging.