Success is a terrible burden, especially if you suspect you had nothing to do with it. What else could explain the government's curious reticence over the latest batch of international league table results?
Last week the UK was lauded as the sixth best education system on the planet in a Pearson ranking. This week in two other surveys England was placed in the top 10 for maths and science and a creditable 11th in reading (see pages 14-15). Was there a triumphal procession from the education department to a service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey? Were Te Deums sung and medals struck for gallant teachers? Er, no. Tim Henman earned more official plaudits for disappointing the nation on an annual basis at Wimbledon.
The charitable justification for this grudging reception is that the rankings weren't exactly kosher. Pearson's in particular raised eyebrows because it omitted several countries and relied heavily on graduate and adult rather than pupil performance. The uncharitable explanation is simpler: the government didn't hang out the bunting because success didn't fit its narrative of decline. It's terribly inconvenient if one is banging on about the need for reform to have a bunch of foreigners come along and tell the natives they're doing a splendid job. No crisis, no need for that overhaul.
Both explanations illuminate two big problems with the current vogue of comparing and ranking education systems globally: no measure is perfect and too many politicians draw flawed conclusions from partial data (see pages 24-28). Take the government's preferred metric, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Critics claim Pisa's findings are as balanced as Eurovision voting. Some countries allegedly game the system by coaching selected students; others do it overtly by entering chosen cities rather than entire nations.
Meanwhile, politicians eager to ape the best in the world ignore context and opt for misguided quick fixes, vainly trying to refashion bits of the Middle East into an ersatz Finland, for instance.
There are other problems. The surveys are charged with promoting a narrow, Anglo-Saxon view of the world and with encouraging politicians to berate schools for poor pupil performance that has its roots in the home rather than the classroom.
Those are valid criticisms but there are equally good reasons to welcome a global conversation. The most obvious and overwhelming is that it spreads and shows what works. It allows countries to adopt good ideas and to discard those that have failed elsewhere. Few would now deny, for instance, that literacy and numeracy are critical or that improving teacher quality is key to success. Unflattering comparisons have forced the complacent to jettison their complacency. Germany's poor showing in Pisa a decade ago was such a shock that it led to rapid reform and huge improvement.
Ministers believe England's schools still need that kick up the backside. The most astonishing finding in the latest rankings is that some East Asian countries are doing so well they're pulling away from the pack. Should we be content to head a second division? Perhaps not, but a bit of official praise for our teachers wouldn't cost the government anything and might do more to galvanise a dejected profession than a kicking ever would.