Since coming to power the Government has rarely missed an opportunity to stress the importance of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey. Education secretary Michael Gove says no nation can afford to ignore the international comparisons it produces. But this week TES has learnt that England will be going further than ignoring the results of a new element being introduced to Pisa next year - it will not be taking part at all.
Critics say its absence from Pisa's new test of problem-solving makes a mockery of Mr Gove's emphasis on international evidence. They argue he is "cherry-picking" the pieces that match his views and dismissing the ones that don't. The official reason given by the Department for Education for not participating is that "we don't want to overburden schools". But to some that will sound strange coming from a government that is making it possible for schools to be legally forced into participating in international surveys.
"I don't think it washes," said John Bangs, who sits on the trade union advisory committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which produces Pisa. "I think that when you sign up to Pisa, as Mr Gove has done, you sign up to every aspect. If you believe, as he has said, that Pisa is the benchmark, then when the OECD says it is enhancing its analytical power, you can't start pulling back."
It seems that even the backing of someone described by Mr Gove as "the most important man in world education" has not been enough to change his mind. That man - Andreas Schleicher, the OECD official overseeing Pisa - said this week that "we need to assess problem-solving abilities as governments around the world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment".
Another possible explanation for England's absence from the optional test, being taken by 43 of the 66 territories participating in Pisa 2012, might be found in the framework for the assessment. It says "problem-solving competency" can be developed through "progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning" and project work. "The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today's knowledge is not sufficient," it concludes.
They are words likely to make those like Mr Gove, who see knowledge as the foundation of reason, wince. And Mr Bangs argues that the whole basis of the test runs "contrary to the Government's obsession with a narrow fact- based curriculum". But the idea is not going away. In 2015, Pisa will build on it and introduce a new test of collaborative problem-solving. The DfE says it is too early to say whether England will take part in this test. But it is likely to prove even less attractive to Mr Gove, who has said that "time and effort spent on cultivating abstract thinking skills" denies children access to "essential" subject knowledge.
Pearson, the education multi-national that will develop the framework for the 2015 test, says it is "an attempt to bring 21st-century skills and higher-order thinking skills into Pisa". Peter Miller, president of Pearson Learning Solutions - the first private company to win a Pisa contract - told TES: "It requires a different approach to the education system than a hothouse around the acquisition of knowledge." Mr Gove has placed the acquisition of "essential" subject knowledge at the centre of his ongoing national curriculum review. But Mr Miller said countries with high Pisa rankings had started introducing "self-directed learning" and "critical thinking" into their curriculums.
This might give Mr Gove, who again referenced Pisa in his speech to the Conservative party conference on Tuesday, food for thought.
THE 2012 PISA SURVEY
66 territories are expected to participate in the main test, which focuses on maths but will also include questions relating to reading and science
43 territories are expected to participate in a problem-solving test. England will not take part
18 territories are expected to participate in a financial literacy test. England will not take part.