What a difference a word makes. The accepted truth since 2010 is that results in the three-yearly OECD PISA tests for England and the UK have ‘stagnated’.
Here’s former education secretary Michael Gove in December 2013:
‘Previous OECD league tables have shown how, under Labour, England’s schools have, at worst, declined, and at best, remained stagnant.’
And schools minister Nick Gibb on the 2012 PISA results: ‘they [Labour] let England stagnate in international league tables, while other countries surged ahead.’
And Chris Skidmore MP writing in the Telegraph in December 2013:
‘Essentially results have stagnated since 2009, when we slipped from being 8th for Maths, 7th for reading and 4th for science in 2000, down to 28th for maths, 25th for reading and 16th for science…’
Yesterday, however, Skidmore, now Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, changed emphasis from relative rankings to scores. Speaking in the Commons, he said:
‘…according to the latest OECD programme for international student assessment from 2015, while performance has remained stable in England and Northern Ireland since 2006, there has been a sustained decline in science in schools in Wales, and in maths in schools in Scotland…’ (my emphasis).
While I welcome this change in wording – stability implies consistency while stagnation hints at being stuck in muck – the cynic in me wonders what might have caused this change in tone.
The most recent PISA tests were taken in 2018. Results won’t be known until December this year. English pupils taking these tests would have studied ‘reformed’ GCSEs in English, Maths and Science, the three subjects assessed by PISA.
It may be that England’s scores or relative rankings will rise. If so, the Government (unless it’s kicked out by then) will claim post-2010 reforms have been a success. But if there’s no change, the Government will likely say England’s scores have been stable, constant, consistent, unwavering - any metaphor to avoid the stigma of stagnation.
Rising, falling or stable, PISA scores won’t reveal the real decline in the education system in England – the excessive emphasis on test results and its negative effects: ‘gaming’, off-rolling, teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and schools taking measures to persuade low-achieving or SEND pupils to go elsewhere.
FOOTNOTE: Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that Skidmore’s 2013 Telegraph article cited PISA 2000. The OECD warned in 2010 that comparisons should not be made with UK PISA results from 2000 because they hadn’t met sampling standards. But this warning didn’t stop Gove from using the false comparison to justify his education reforms. The ‘plummeting’ down league table myth was born.