The 'world's schoolmaster' delivers his annual report
An invitation to a briefing from the head of the indicators and analysis division (directorate for education) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) would not, at first glance, set many journalists' pulses racing. Nor, to be honest, would the neatly moustachioed German mathematician who holds that illustrious title. Andreas Schleicher is a studiously neutral grey-haired bureaucrat who goes well out of his way to avoid saying anything that could possibly be construed as controversial, unless it is backed up with cast-iron facts.
But this quietly spoken seeker of statistical truth has become something of a global education celebrity thanks to his role collating the hugely influential Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. A US magazine recently described him as "the world's schoolmaster". Bad Pisa results have sent countries into political shock, and education secretary Michael Gove has called the German the most important man in British education.
All of which meant that when Mr Schleicher presented the results of the OECD's annual Education at a Glance report in London on Monday, reporters were hanging on his every word, to see if it did anything to support or undermine his biggest fan.
His first point concerned the 56 per cent increase the UK had spent on schools in 2000-08, the eighth highest out of 30 advanced countries. British teachers earn "more or less (the OECD) average", though their hours are longer. "That makes your education system cheaper," said Mr Schleicher. In which case, what has all the extra money been spent on? "It has essentially been class sizes," came the expert reply.
Class sizes in lower secondary schools shrunk by 16 per cent between 2000 and 2009 in the UK. There was a time when that would have been seen as a good thing. Labour made smaller class sizes one of its five key 1997 election pledges and changed the law in an attempt to guarantee them. But even Charles Clarke, who boasted of class-size reduction while education secretary during 2002-04, has now admitted to TES that the evidence behind the class-size policy does not "stack up".
Mr Schleicher gently drove the point home this week. "Many high-performing systems do almost the reverse," he said. "They put more effort into the quality of teachers and less resources in smaller classes." Which some might interpret as meaning that Labour had got its education priorities wrong. So one-nil to Mr Gove, who has made improving teacher quality a central goal.
But then came a question with the potential to undermine the Coalition's most high-profile education policy: free schools. Days after a think-tank report suggested the success of Swedish free schools was down to grade inflation, Mr Schleicher was asked whether increased school autonomy resulted in higher standards.
"It is very hard to relate to cause and effect," he said. "But one of the things that I would say for Sweden is that we have seen very rapidly rising disparities in school performance. The overall trend has rather been on the negative side than the positive side."
For Mr Schleicher this was strong stuff. It looked like the "most important man in British education" was, by his standards, trashing its flagship policy. But then came the caveats. "I don't think you can necessarily generalise this," he continued. "The top-performing territory in the world - Shanghai in China - has a very strong education system, but provides very considerable school autonomy."
Asked specifically about England, he said: "The model of free schools is an interesting development. There is a lot of promise in it, but you can also see models where it has not gone well."
The world's schoolmaster may be sitting firmly on the fence, but Mr Gove must be breathing a sigh of relief.
UK lags peers
Disadvantaged pupils in the UK are much less likely than their counterparts in other countries to overcome their backgrounds and excel, according to the OECD.
Just 24 per cent of relatively deprived pupils achieved that educational "resilience" in this country compared to 76 per cent in Shanghai, China; 56 per cent in South Korea; and an OECD average of 31 per cent. The UK came 10th from bottom in a league table of 39 countries.
John Bangs, a member of the OECD trade union advisory committee, said: "This is one of the most powerful statistics in Education at a Glance and it is one that the coalition Government should be focusing on the most."
The OECD defines "resilience" according to the proportion of pupils in the bottom quarter of an index of their country's economic, social and cultural status, who perform in the top quarter of pupils across all countries after accounting for socio-economic background.