Test obsession holds back the UK

OECD report says testing, targets and parental choice perpetuate rather than break Britain's cycle of inequality

Reducing the focus on tests and targets could help break the close link between class and school results in the UK and improve the country's education system, according to a working paper for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It calls for a "renewed sense of urgency, together with new approaches" to tackle the UK's poor performance in literacy and numeracy compared to rival countries.

But rather than proposing sanctions for underperforming schools, or giving parents more school choice, the study suggests that ministers do the opposite.

The report was written by Anne-Marie Brook, who is a senior economist - rather than an education expert - in the OECD's economics department.

Ms Brook highlights the UK's results in international comparison tests, which show that its pupils perform roughly around the world average, but significantly below the best-performing developed countries, such as Canada and Finland. The main reason for this underperformance, she suggests, is that the connection between a pupil's background and their performance remains unusually high in the UK. The education system here "still seems to perpetuate rather than break the cycle of inequality".

Ms Brook points out that the countries with the best-performing systems tend to have the least variety between schools' results; those with the worst often start streaming pupils the earliest. Giving parents more choice between schools "tends only to work for a well-informed and confident clientele", because the children from the lowest socio-economic classes are most likely to end up in the worst schools.

"This suggests a strong case for an increased focus on raising the educational standards of all schools," Ms Brook writes. She argues that ministers in the UK should focus more on supporting weaker pupils and schools, and offer pay incentives to encourage the best teachers to work in them.

"Compared with encouraging disadvantaged pupils to move to good schools, it may be much easier, and more effective, to encourage good teachers to move to bad schools," she writes.

Her report also criticises the test culture which has affected England in particular.

She notes that the improvements in national results that ministers boast about are not reflected in international comparisons.

"The test-dominated education system in the United Kingdom has pioneered the use of school benchmarking techniques and the use of targets to raise school quality," she writes. "However, targets may have biased some national measures of education performance, and there is relatively little evidence of improvement in performance when evaluated using international tests."

The report points to the evidence of teaching-to-the-test and "gaming", where schools have played the system. As an example, it notes that the gap between GCSE results for pupils eligible for free school meals and those who are not appears to close by more than three percentage points between 2002 and 2007. But this was only when they were judged by the original measurement of five top grades; when the criteria were changed to include English and maths, the gap remained the same.

The report is also critical of the reward and sanction aspect of targets, and suggests that a performance management system is introduced "that captures the complexity of the education process", rather than simplistic measures.

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said: "What this report says is that governments' obsessions over the past 10 or 20 years with choice and testing in education has undermined the fundamental project of providing equity for all.

"It is all the more profound that it is the economics department of the OECD which is recognising it."

The report also suggests that Labour should rethink its moves to make education or training compulsory up to the age of 18, as it is not been made clear what the benefits of keeping unmotivated 16- and 17-year-olds in the education system will be.

- `Raising Education Achievement and Breaking the Cycle of Inequality in the United Kingdom' is at: www.olis.oecd.org


- Reduce focus on testing and targets.

- Put more focus on supporting weak pupils and schools, and making all schools good.

- A "renewed sense of urgency, together with new approaches" to tackle the UK's relative underperformance in literacy and numeracy

- Create incentives for good teachers to teach in poor schools.

- Compulsory education up to 18 may not work. May be worth just making it compulsory for those without minimum results.

- More progressive systems for funding, including a Chilean-style voucher system where poorer families receive more money for their children's education.

- When A-levels and diplomas are reviewed in 2013, give serious consideration to moving towards a unified qualifications system, similar to that suggested by Sir Mike Tomlinson in his 2004 report on the subject.

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