World Domination: It's a nice idea, but is it the right one for us?

28th January 2011 at 00:00
Analysis: Michael Gove's determination to measure our schools by global standards may be in danger of skewing the whole thrust of our educational ambitions. William Stewart reports

The two most important men in world education are Andreas Schleicher and Michael Barber, England's education secretary declared this month.

As Michael Gove admitted, they may seem unusual choices. The pair do not teach, have no involvement in government today and are certainly not household names.

But Mr Gove's selections are emblematic of a growing phenomenon that has been enthusiastically embraced by Westminster decision-makers since the Coalition came to power - the globalisation of education policy.

It is based on what initially seems a simple idea that is difficult to argue with - that in an ever more interconnected world, we should seek out the "best" education systems and learn from and copy them.

But how do you measure what is "best", or identify the policies that created that success?

A superstructure of statistics, league tables, policy documents and world summits is now emerging to help the growing number of education ministers who want to have a go.

But there is also increasing dissent from educationalists who fear the distortions and excesses of our domestic testing, targets and tables culture will be repeated on a global scale.

TES readers will probably have heard of Sir Michael Barber - a former head of education at the NUT who went on to advise Tony Blair in Downing Street and led New Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies.But he has had no direct involvement in government since Gordon Brown left Number 10, and now works for a management consultancy.

Andreas Schleicher - a German mathematician heading an "indicators and analysis division" for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - seems an even more obscure choice. But his job involves collating the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey. And it is Pisa, along with the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), that provides the international education league tables which more and more countries use to judge their schools policy.

And they are having quite an effect. As Mr Gove related, the first tables gave Germany what has been termed "Pisa-shock" as it realised that "their education system was nowhere near the position of world leadership they had fondly imagined".

He added that the 2009 Pisa results provided a "Sputnik moment" for the US as its educationalists realised their schools were being outperformed by the Far East.

Mr Gove's reaction to the latest Pisa report has been just as strong. But he has replaced shock and startled bewilderment with cool, calculating politics. He used Britain's disappointing 2009 results, published last year, to create a narrative that says Labour failed to build on early reforms and now it is time for something different.

That is where Sir Michael comes in. After leaving government, the former Keele University academic co-wrote a report for consultant McKinsey that analysed Pisa results to work out How the World's Best-performing School Systems Come out on Top.

Published in 2007, this paper, together with last year's follow-up - How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better - has proved hugely influential. Mr Gove says his schools white paper has "shamelessly plundered" policies highlighted by McKinsey.

And its reach goes further. At a "summit" of educationalists from 120 countries in Doha, Qatar, last month, it was easy to lose count of how often the paper's central message - "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers" - was repeated.

This gathering - the second annual World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) - was itself a mark of how far the globalisation of education policy has come.

If Pisa provided the statistics and McKinsey the analysis, Wise is designed as the forum for education statesmen to discuss and decide.

But it also unwittingly illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to draw lessons and parallels, and reach common positions from such a multitude of diverse systems.

The summit's Qatari founders and funders envisage it as the education equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which attracts up to 40 world leaders and hundreds of other heavy hitters from business and government every year.

Wise is nowhere near attracting that level of influence among its 1,250 delegates yet (see box). But even if it does, it may never work in quite the same way.

The interdependence of the economic matters discussed in Davos make it essential for governments to co-operate and reach agreement. Education systems are not so interlinked. Ministers may want to borrow ideas from overseas and feel the need to compete. But they don't have to worry that foreign school reforms will have a direct, immediate impact on their own policy. National school systems still exist as largely self-contained worlds, so there is not the same imperative to engage.

At Doha, some speakers tended to ignore the topic up for debate and just gave a general account of their own education system.

At times, the event - held in a surreal neo-Manhattan rearing up out of the desert - felt a bit like a Miss World contest. Like world peace, the need to improve education was something everyone could agree on.

And if cliches were a measure of success, the second Wise was a triumph. From "change accelerating", "preparing the next generation", and the need to go "forwards not backwards" to the fact that "the future is something you create" - we heard them all.

But some very thorny issues were barely touched on. For example, is large-scale international collaboration in education ever really going to take off when competing with other nations has become the raison d'etre of so many countries' education policies?

Instead, press releases were issued with insightful findings such as: "Innovative financing of education must happen in two ways: funds should be raised innovatively and they should be disbursed in innovative ways."

There were many interesting exchanges and no doubt lots of ideas and business cards swapped. And it is still very early days for Wise, which - with the substantial coffers of Qatar behind it - can only grow. But the haphazard nature of its content does suggest that the "cross-fertilisation" of global ideas Mr Gove is so excited about has limitations.

There is nothing haphazard about McKinsey. The motto of this hugely influential global management consultancy is: "Everything can be measured and what gets measured gets managed." It has applied the philosophy to schools by analysing evidence supplied by Pisa, Timss and Pirls.

Mr Gove argues that ignoring its conclusions "would be as foolish as dismissing what control trials tell us in medicine. It means flying in the face of the best evidence we have of what works."

But is it necessarily the most appropriate evidence? No study can measure all aspects of so many systems, so they concentrate on indicators and aspects they think pertinent.

But each country will have different needs at different times. What if they don't coincide with what Pisa or Timss is measuring?

Professor Stephen Heppell made that point at one of Wise's more interesting sessions.

"You take the top five Pisa nations and say 'Here are the top five world problems' and ask whether those nations have anything to offer in solving those problems, and there is a desperate mismatch," the Bournemouth University education professor said.

"Pisa has been a huge distraction - a model of incrementalism and managerialism which has been fatal, and you see the damage spreading around the world."

He is even more critical of McKinsey's latest education offering, accusing it of failing to tap into the "ingenuity and creativity" and use of technology that could really captivate learners.

"The McKinsey report misses that zeitgeist absolutely and completely. It is one of the least ambitious things I have seen," he said. "But education ministers are sometimes hoodwinked by these dismal reports."

In fact, the study suggests England needs to give teachers more freedom to be creative if it wants to move from "good" to "great". But it is the approach of relying so heavily on data and statistics, as much as the actual recommendations, that frightens some.

As with any league tables and data sets, those created by Pisa can be presented in different ways to show different things.

Take the British results quoted so often by Mr Gove. "In the last 10 years, we have plummeted in the rankings from fourth to 16th for science, seventh to 25th for literacy and eighth to 28th for maths," he said again last week.

But have we really? The idea that those Pisa rankings demonstrate a decline in the UK's standing is controversial. The OECD, which compiled them, decided that a lack of participation from Britain's schools meant its 2000 results were statistically invalid and retrospectively wiped them from the record.

So some commentators argue, with some justification, that Britain's 2000 Pisa high was actually a fluke, a mere statistical blip. If you agree with them, Mr Gove's narrative of a decade of decline starts to fall apart.

Are politicians who make climbing a world league table the central goal of their education policies dangerously lacking in imagination and vision? Or are they sensibly making the best use of all available evidence so that our young people have the best possible chance in an increasingly competitive world?

In England, we are about to find out.



The second World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) was held in Doha, Qatar, only five days after the emirate pulled off its audacious bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Wise is its attempt to make a similar mark on global education, part of plans to use its enormous wealth to secure a long-term future when its huge oil and gas reserves run out.

In education, that means flying out 1,250 delegates - all expenses paid - to join a global education conference created from nothing.

Sheikh Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, Wise chairman and a member of the royal family, says the summit "is a way to improve education on a global scale". But that needs it to attract the kind of heavy-duty power brokers that attend the Davos World Economic Forum it is modelled on.

In that respect, Wise may still have some way to go. A spokeswoman claimed that representatives of 33 governments attended. Britain was included, but asked to name its representatives, she could only point to Charles Clarke, the fifth most recent education secretary, and Lord Puttnam, an opposition peer.

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