Pisa slip should put a rocket under our world-class ambitions and drive us to win the education space race

17th December 2010 at 00:00

Some people are taking the Pisa (programme for international assessment) 2009 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) very seriously indeed. In the US, education experts called it our generation's "Sputnik moment". The evidence that 15-year-olds in Shanghai are so comfortably outperforming American pupils in maths and science has come as a salutary shock of a similar kind to the Soviet Union's surprise satellite launch in 1957, an event which prompted a radical reform of science education in the US.

We cannot afford to be complacent about the results either. We have slipped in the Pisa rankings down to 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science. I agree that we should not - as perhaps many in the media have done during the past fortnight - regard this study chiefly as a blow to national pride. Rather, we should see it as a spur to action. In the long run, if we hope to maintain a world-class economy delivering world-class public services, world-class universities and world-class RD, we will need world-class schools.

Most good teachers, quite rightly, eschew a crudely instrumental view of education, valuing it as a good in itself. So I do not expect the profession to focus upon the enhanced prospects for investment and jobs that would accrue if we were to improve our Pisa scores. I hope, however, that teachers will take careful note of what Pisa 2009 tells us about how our schools system is failing to fully develop the potential of many of our children. An alarming 18 per cent are failing to achieve a standard of literacy that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life. More than 20 per cent are failing to achieve a baseline proficiency in maths. We are leaving something close to one in five stranded on the rocks of life when they leave school. Pisa shows that this failure cannot be excused by facile reference to social and economic factors. The UK has fewer pupils from poor backgrounds than most other OECD countries. In many of those countries, a higher proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds excel at school despite their social and economic handicaps than here in the UK.

Fortunately, Pisa 2009 provides clear pointers to how we can reform our schools system to make it one of the best in the world. Pisa helps identify what the best-performing nations have in common. Pisa tells us that we must attract the most talented teachers and put them in the most challenging classrooms. Pisa tells us that countries do better when they allow schools greater autonomy over how budgets are spent and pupils are taught, and that these freedoms should be combined with transparent assessment and accountability. Pisa tells us that ambitious standards, high expectations, and good quality external examinations are all crucially important.

Last month the Government published a schools white paper that so precisely addresses the key lessons of Pisa 2009 that it could easily be mistaken for a bespoke response to it. This is, of course, no coincidence. In forming its schools policy the Government has been mindful of Pisas past. Whereas the last Labour government, despite declaring education to be a priority and massively increasing spending on schools, failed to take heed of what was happening abroad, we have been avidly scouring the globe for successful models from which we can profitably learn.

Our recent schools white paper was entitled The Importance of Teaching, signalling our commitment to raising the quality of new entrants to the profession, improving teacher training through more time spent in the classroom and via a network of teaching schools based on the model of teaching hospitals. We have learnt from Finland - a consistently strong performer in Pisa studies - the importance of attracting the very best graduates into teaching, thereby reinforcing the importance of the profession. Teachers already within the system will enjoy new opportunities for professional development.

We have announced a review of the national curriculum with the aim of reducing prescription. Schools will enjoy new freedoms and will shed unnecessary bureaucratic burdens. Expanding the number of academies together with new free schools, some promoted by groups of teachers, will further extend autonomy and choice. I know that some sceptics fear that successful free schools will leave hollowed-out schools in their wake, but international experience shows that the dynamics do not work like that. In Sweden, free schools have helped drive up standards in neighbouring schools. As the OECD points out, two of the most successful countries in Pisa - Hong Kong and Singapore - are among those with the highest levels of school competition.

They are one of the tools we intend to use to confront "the soft bigotry of low expectations", which continues to blight the life chances of many children from deprived backgrounds. Nor need extended choice be the enemy of co-operation. Our plans foresee schools collaborating on a scale that has never been witnessed before.

We agree with Pisa's conclusion that autonomy works best when combined with accountability. That is why we will be putting much more information into the public domain, reforming Ofsted so that inspections focus on key issues of educational effectiveness, and revamping performance tables and introducing "floor standards". We will ensure that our exam standards match the highest from overseas and we will be introducing the English Baccalaureate to encourage schools to offer a broad set of academic standards to age 16 - just as is expected in the most successful countries around the world.

Pisa 2009 shows that thoroughgoing reform of our schools is urgently necessary. But in our teachers and our students, we have the raw materials - if we work together - to build a truly world-class education system. After all, the real lesson of Sputnik is that, in the end, the space race was won not by a country dependent on central planning and complex bureaucracy, but by one where the human spirit was given full opportunity to thrive.

Michael Gove is education secretary.

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