Michael Davidson

24th February 2012 at 00:00
The new head of the OECD division responsible for Pisa talks about what Scotland can learn from the world's highest-performing schools, why we have slipped down the education league table and the importance of teacher pay

Is it fair to describe you as the new Andreas Schleicher?

No - there is only one Andreas Schleicher and I am happy to be Michael Davidson. But I am effectively doing his old job as head of the OECD division responsible for Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment).

Do you have a background in teaching?

No, I've been a career civil servant since I left university. I trained formally as a statistician and mathematician.

Is it valid to compare the literacy levels of 15-year-olds in Shanghai and, say, Edinburgh, when they live in very different cultures and school systems?

We think it's valid because we have a rigorous process for developing a test which is regarded by all the participating economies as a fair assessment of reading, mathematics or science competency at 15. It's quite an elaborate process, using international experts to develop items which countries review and can reject if they feel they are unfair as a measure of their education system.

The most recent Pisa results saw a massive surge in the achievements of pupils in the Far East. Why?

People commonly, if falsely, put this down to cultural difference and a culture which has a preoccupation with success. When we delved into the statistics and asked the experts, we found that in Shanghai most of the reasons are not cultural. One important thing - true of many of the successful countries - is they have begun to take an outward-looking approach to their education system. They realised they needed to put it to the test internationally to see if they could learn from other countries, so they have made reforms across the curriculum. There has been a lot of emphasis on teacher capacity-building and in-service training. Funding has been important - to a degree - particularly spreading the funding to those areas which make the biggest impact. Shanghai has expanded and built a lot of new schools, so successful schools are partnered with less successful schools.

In the western world, Finland and Canada are among the highest-performing. What can Scotland learn from them?

Coping with social diversity. A striking statistic for Scotland is the impact of social diversity - success there is determined by social background. Canada and France manage to mitigate against social diversity.

The OECD has pinpointed a particular problem in Scotland's education system - a lack of equity within schools. How should we tackle this?

It has to be about the capacity-building of teachers to deal with social diversity. Scotland has an inclusive system, but there are huge challenges for teachers to adapt their teaching to those different needs.

Why has Scotland slipped down the international Pisa league table?

It's partly that others are overtaking it. Scotland's scores for reading and maths show a declining performance over 10 years, but most of that decline has been at the lower end of the ability spectrum. There is a higher proportion now of students who don't have the basic skills you need for later in life; what lies behind that is difficult to pinpoint. In Scotland, 43 per cent don't read for enjoyment outside school - not comics or football or fashion magazines. That percentage has increased since 2000. Given the strength of the correlation between engagement with reading and performance, that's an area that the education system and society can look at to raise performance.

Are there other significant findings relating to Scotland's performance?

We asked pupils about their learning environment. A lot of these findings are not significant in Scotland, but two things show as being important: the fact that where pupils perceive a poor disciplinary climate, their performance is lower; and the quality of teacher-pupil relationships. The quality of relationships is not perceived to be poor overall, but where it is poor it has a much bigger impact on performance than in other countries.

Other OECD participants have signed up to take part in Talis (Teaching and Learning International Survey), but not Scotland. What is it and should Scotland be on board?

It's a sort of sister project to Pisa. If there is a weakness in Pisa, it's that it doesn't have a teacher voice. Talis is a measure of how teacher quality might be improved alongside Pisa. The current position is a missed opportunity for Scotland to take part in this. The greatest diversity within the classroom is not between schools but within the school walls. The people who can address that are teachers and schools. Unless we know more internationally about how teachers fare it is difficult for policy-makers and practitioners to move forwards fast in improving standards.

Does teacher pay make a difference to pupil attainment?

It's difficult to give a definitive answer. When you look at the common features of successful education systems, most are faced with tight budgets. Where an education system prioritises teachers' pay over, say, reducing class size, these are the more successful systems. But prioritising teacher pay does not guarantee success; it's what you do with the pay and capacity within the system.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Born: Perth, 1960

Education: Perth High; Abertay University (then called Dundee Institute of Technology) - BSc in applicable mathematics

Career: UK Government statistical service, 1983; Department for Education and Skills, 1989 including two-year secondment to Darlington education authority's schools improvement service; OECD, 2003-present.

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