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Telling tables

Despite excellent coverage of recent international surveys of achievement in The TES, there remains considerable confusion among the public about what exactly different surveys are measuring. This is not helped when, for example, politicians blame mediocre UK "literacy" levels in the PisaOECD study on our failure to teach young children synthetic phonics.

Pisa tests 15-year-olds on knowledge and skills for life. Reading literacy of course requires students to be able to decode words, but performance in Pisa is distinguished rather by how well students can interpret and reflect on written materials in performing real-life tasks.

Alan Smithers (TES, December 7) asks how it is possible to test such general skills, rather than testing specific mastery of a school curriculum and yet compare results of children across schools as a measure of differences in school performance. I don't see the problem here. I am certainly interested in knowing whether students educated at my local school are, for example, better communicators or more thoughtful intepreters of information than students from the school down the road. I want to know this regardless of how well they perform in a specific part of the school curriculum. And so do employers.

Renewed interest in international testing can help us to view our education system in a wider context. But it is now time to get behind the league tables and find out what these results are really telling us.

Donald Hirsch, Independent policy consultant to the OECD, Guildford, Surrey.

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