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'Pisa contains powerful arguments for those fighting to prevent the fragmentation of England’s education system'

John Bangs, chair of the Trade Union Advisory Committee’s Education Working Group at the OECD and senior consultant to Education International, writes:

Next Tuesday, the globe’s education press will go into overdrive. In what has become one of the world’s greatest media circuses, the launch of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment – much better known as ‘Pisa’ – will take place.

A triennial study of how well 15-year-olds use their literacy, numeracy and reading skills, Pisa has gone from being just one of a number of international surveys of student achievement to the primary instrument that governments use to compare their performance.

The governments of those countries that took part in Pisa 2012 – there is a lag between the tests and the publication – will have had their results for some time, so ministers' stories about success or failure will have been prepared.

What they will not be able to anticipate is where the glare of the media spotlight will fall.

With the OECD applying a strict embargo on the results, the press hunt for early signs of individual countries' results has been the equivalent of the old science of Kremlinology. Nevertheless, it’s probably a reasonable expectation that Britain’s Fleet Street will criticise what they believe to be England’s poor performance in numeracy – Pisa’s major focus this time round – and how well the East Asian countries, and possibly other Europeans, have performed in contrast.

For classroom teachers, Pisa is one of those background noises that either enhance optimism or confirm pessimism. Yet Pisa is far more than a league table of test results. At best, the headlines it receives only paint a partial picture.

In fact, it is full of insights that fail to attain sound-bite status. Pisa 2006 contained one of my favourites: it found that the more 15-year-olds knew about climate change, the more pessimistic they became. This finding came out at precisely the time that Robin Alexander’s Primary Review in England was published, in which he found that schools that included practical sustainable development activities raised children’s optimism levels. This was a gift that supported teacher-union arguments for sustainable development to be included in the curriculum.

The most important thing about Pisa is its broad policy conclusions, not its rankings. The first four reports found that private education is no better than public education, that comprehensive education based on equity is far more successful than selection and that the most successful countries, while devolving responsibilities to schools, actually operate as systems and concentrate on boosting teachers’ knowledge and morale.

These are powerful arguments for those fighting to prevent the fragmentation of England’s education system – arguments that Gove’s studious cherry picking of Pisa evidence chooses to ignore. It is worth examining Pisa 2012 to see whether these findings have been amplified or changed.

What is not entirely convincing is the OECD’s disclaimer of the importance given by the media to its rankings. It is all very well saying that the differences between many countries are not statistically significant, but the media profile that the league tables create is very tempting.

As such, the OECD has to very careful that some countries and their teachers do not become disillusioned with Pisa, because that would be a real shame. 

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