10th December 2010 at 00:00
Those pesky Koreans, Finns and Kiwis outwit us again. But will we do better next time round?

We are plummeting again. Our schools have slumped, lurched and nosedived into mediocrity, according to the latest international rankings, or at least the tabloids' version of them. We are officially "now inferior to Estonia". In fact, we have plateaued rather than tanked (pages 1, 8-9). Leaving aside our inflated 2000 results, when we appear to have mailed a lottery scratch card to Pisa rather than schools data, our performance in 2009 is broadly similar to that in 2006. The UK has flatlined (though Wales has plunged). We are average.

We are a C country with A* pretensions. And average isn't good enough. If we upped our grades and got to hang around with all the cool countries, our economy could be worth trillions more, says the OECD. It is especially galling because over the last decade we have spent billions on education - only seven countries spend more per pupil. It is true that our schools excel at extra-curricular activities, are remarkably bully-free and boast of boys who are marginally less illiterate than their international peers, but it doesn't quite compensate for the disappointment at being bested once again by Koreans, Finns and Kiwis.

The Government has gallantly blamed the previous lot. The secretary of state, though "daunted by the scale of the challenge", is confident that his reforms - influenced by lessons from high-performing countries - will enable us to keep pace with the best. But are the results a ringing endorsement of his plans?

The survey backs his contention that good graduates, trained well, and constantly, in class are essential to excellent school performance. It also agrees that discipline is key and that there is a "clear relationship between autonomy and outcomes". Most helpfully of all, Pisa echoes the Government's belief that poverty does not automatically doom pupils to underachievement. If school resources are distributed fairly, education can significantly moderate disadvantage. In the UK, 24 per cent of disadvantaged students excel in school; in the best-performing countries it is 40 per cent.

Unfortunately for ministers, some of the survey's other conclusions are less helpful. For instance, there appears to be no proof that making schools' data transparent necessarily improves performance, or any evidence that competition between schools elevates the system as a whole. The Conservatives' free-market darling, Sweden, plunged in the rankings.

Inconveniently, although the OECD says good discipline and autonomy are essential to high performance, the UK already scores well above average in both. So why expend an inordinate amount of energy on areas that are not in urgent need of improvement?

Critics of Pisa say it is unwise to transplant lessons from diverse cultures. That, however, is not the Government's view. So if ministers have misread the recipe and we are getting cosy with Croatia by 2012, who will they blame? Live by Pisa, die by Pisa.


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