PISA 2018: election knocks results from front pages

Janet Downs's picture

It’s usually a three-year ritual.  The day PISA results are published is the day the UK media is dominated by hand-wringing about why the UK isn’t at the top.

The Mail’s headline in 2010 was typical: Travesty of our “stagnating” schools’ splashed across the front page in four-inch font.  This perpetuated the myth of how UK schools had plummeted down league tables in a decade.

Fast-forward nine years and there’s an election.  Commentary about PISA seems confined to the education press and the BBC.   An internet search for news about the 2018 results finds much about other countries but little from the UK.

The Times did publish two articles: one explaining how Estonia, top European country, is ‘free from political interference’ and the other, seemingly contradictory, attributes the UK’s modest rise up the league tables to Gove’s ‘reforms’.  The UK’s higher performance in Maths, the paper said, was due to the introduction of ‘more complex mathematical concepts much earlier in a child’s schooling’ in 2014.

There are several things wrong with that statement.  First, education is a devolved issue – Gove’s reforms only affected England.  Second, it’s difficult to understand how insisting maths contains more difficult concepts in primary school in 2014 could have any influence on pupils taking tests four years later.  Third, improvement or otherwise in PISA tests can’t solely be attributed to education reforms.  There are other factors in play.

But if England’s rise in maths performance is due to Michael Gove then it’s equally true to say, ‘'Reforms fail to halt decline in science’.

Both claims are simplistic and misleading.

In any case, the results may be incorrect.  John Jerrim of the IoE highlights problems with sampling, changes in methodology and technical issues which affect the UK’s PISA tests.

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