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International comparisons can be instructive if used properly - but, on this too, England is lagging behind

It is becoming increasingly hard to talk about education without using international examples, be it free schools in Sweden, charter schools in the US, or the national curriculum in Hong Kong. In an attempt to improve their school systems, politicians are turning to other countries for inspiration and ideas.

This trend was championed by Gordon Brown, who, as prime minister, set out his ambition for England to be in the top three in science and top five in maths out of all developed countries by 2015. While the coalition Government has rejected the use of such targets, it has been just as zealous in its use of international best practice. Speeches by education secretary Michael Gove are peppered with examples of schools from Alberta to Singapore.

Lying behind this trend is the increasing importance of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings - a form of global league table that requires children in different countries to sit a common test. First developed in 1998 with 28 countries taking part, Pisa now covers 74 education systems, making up 86 per cent of the world economy. England's position in the rankings - which is consistently average on most counts - is generally greeted with media hysteria and short-lived political panic.

So in an effort to compete with other school systems, lessons from the world's top performers are now in vogue. Learning from other countries is a laudable aim, but it has to be done carefully. There is a serious danger that politicians "cherry pick" reforms from other countries without really understanding whether they were successful. For example, charter schools in the US have been an inspiration for the Coalition's free schools policy, but evidence from Stanford University in California shows that over three-quarters of charter schools produced similar or worse results than traditional state schools. Of course, there may be useful lessons to learn from the top-performing charter schools, but we need to identify what those are. Copying the policy "wholesale" will not be enough.

A second danger is that politicians pick policies that have been effective in one country, but that won't work when copied in a different context. Singapore has been celebrated for slimming down its curriculum, but it could only achieve this because it relies on a system of national textbooks that help dictate lesson content - something we don't have in England. It isn't always possible simply to "transplant" a policy that worked well in one country into a different system.

The greatest danger is when international evidence is used to fit particular ideological positions. This is increasingly happening with the results from Pisa. Those on the right tend to focus on its finding that the top systems grant more autonomy to schools, while simultaneously ignoring its conclusion that competition between schools does "not systematically produce better results". Meanwhile, those on the left are often silent about Pisa's support for schools being publicly held to account for their performance.

We therefore need a more systematic way to use international evidence in education policy. The Government has made some tentative steps in this direction by asking the exam regulator, Ofqual, to ensure English exams keep pace with those in other countries. But the review is very limited in scope - comparing just four subjects within very narrow criteria. The expert panel reviewing the national curriculum has also made use of international evidence, although the countries they select will inevitably reflect their particular remit. These ad-hoc attempts to use international evidence are not enough.

Neither is it clear how these attempts to use international evidence will fit with the Government's desire for schools to be "self-improving", with parents and teachers driving changes in the system. The expansion of the academies programme will mean individual school leaders make decisions about which teachers are sent on training courses, what the training should focus on, and whether to follow the national curriculum. The downside of this approach is that it will be hard to spread good practice across the system. Diverse and fragmented school systems are not good at sharing learning between institutions. They need frameworks that all schools operate within in order to ensure that good practice is spread as widely as possible. In a world where individual teachers and parents are responsible for improvement, how can lessons from other countries be reflected in day-to-day practice in classrooms across England?

Somewhat ironically, we can learn from other countries about how best to do this. Germany has drawn its inspiration from industrial benchmarking that took place in the 1980s, when manufacturers were keen to learn from their new competitors in Asia. It has established a whole institution - the Institute for Educational Progress - to carry out a similar sort of benchmarking in the school system. Hong Kong compares everything from its textbooks to exams, while Brazil has aligned its domestic assessment with Pisa. Even the US, a country where states pride themselves on their independence from nationally set criteria, is developing a set of common standards informed by international best practice.

Unlike these countries, England does not yet have an institutional framework for assessing and implementing international lessons on school reform. We need international benchmarks to be "fixed" into the English system, to ensure that evidence from other countries isn't used in a selective way. Without this, we will be left with ad-hoc comparisons that are of little use.

Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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