Is there any point to Pisa?

It's a moderately interesting exercise that reveals little – why do we worship at the altar of Pisa, asks Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Is there any point to the Pisa international education rankings?

During my 15 years of headship in Suffolk, we built a partnership with a high-performing school in Shanghai. Each year, 30 or so of our pupils would spend a week learning from and learning with their Chinese counterparts. It’s one of the projects in our state comprehensive school that I’m most proud of. 

And those exchanges gave me some insights into the similarities and differences in education – and the culture underpinning education – between that hi-tech city and our rural market town.

In particular, I remember a Saturday morning when we went for a walk around the pristine pavements of Shanghai’s Pudong district. We bumped into a young Chinese student who was part of the exchange.

“Hello, where are you off to?” I said, expecting an answer to be the gym, a shopping mall, seeing friends.

This Saturday was like every Saturday for this young man. “Today,” he said, “I am studying. I have my violin lesson, my extra science lesson, and my English tuition.”

This boy’s Saturdays were spent with private tutors within the eye-catching environment of the city’s centre for gifted and talented children.

It came at the end of a week when we’d watched an assembly to all 1,600 of the school’s pupils, in which the principal of the school reminded her pupils that it was their responsibility, their mission, to make China an even better place than their parents’ generation had. 

And it came at the end of a week when some of our Suffolk Year 12 students had sat in on a Year 7 Shanghai maths lesson. They were amazed to find that some of the content of their AS-level mathematics course was being routinely covered by those 11-year-olds.

All of which, I suppose, should remind us that if we are tempted to compare maths performance in one country’s classrooms with another, we should take care. Culture matters. 

It’s not just what happens within a classroom, within a school, that shapes educational performance. It’s the expectations, values and aspirations around that school. That Saturday morning showed it.

Which brings us to today.

Pisa: Does it tell us anything useful? 

Becuase Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) – that familiar educational arms race between nations – is back in the news.

This week, a research paper from a distinguished academic warned us about flaws in the UK data from the 2018 tests. UCL professor John Jerrim has found that low-achieving students were under-represented in the England and Wales samples, while there were also anomalies in the Scottish data.

The response – reported in Tes – from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the tests, is so long and tortuous to comprehend that I am not going to attempt to summarise it. 

Meanwhile, the National Foundation for Educational Research, which compiled England’s Pisa national report, says it used rigorous procedures defined by the OECD, and the Department for Education says the data was fully accepted as valid.

All of this is interesting up to a point, but the bigger issue is the extent to which Pisa scores tell us anything useful in the first place.

As we saw in my opening description of a Saturday morning’s walk in Shanghai, it is incredibly difficult to compare results in one nation’s education system with those in a totally different education system halfway round the world. 

I am aware that the OECD will be able to produce a barrage of information about the validity of the exercise. But, at best, Pisa is surely no more than an intermittent snapshot across a narrow range of performance measures. It is interesting, and perhaps useful, to have some sort of international benchmarking exercise. But it is important to recognise that it is only a toe in the water, and not the definitive verdict on an education system.

There is, of course, so much more to education than the test scores of 15 years olds in reading, maths and science every three years. Schools in the UK have a long and proud tradition of providing a curriculum that is rich and broad, that encompasses the arts, humanities and sport. And their focus goes far beyond academic disciplines and extracurricular activities, with a strong emphasis on supporting the wellbeing of children

Ask any parent, and any student, and it is fair bet that they will say they value this breadth of learning opportunities, and the emphasis we place in our education system on caring for each child.

Ritual bouts of self-flagellation

That is not to say that other countries do not have similar values – the point is simply that the narrow focus of Pisa is very far from being the whole picture of an education system. 

Unfortunately, it has been given far too much emphasis by governments in shaping education policy. There are reasons for this. The first is that the production of any sort of league table immediately gets turned into a game of Top Trumps in the media. 

The game in the UK is generally to compare this country unfavourably to the performance of other countries – even though the statistical differences are often very slight. These ritual bouts of self-flagellation are inevitably seized upon politically to attack the government of the day and/or schools and colleges

However, beyond this, there is a more subtle global trend to treat data as an article of faith – something that is measurable and solid in a sea of uncertainty and difficult decisions. Advancement up those global rankings demonstrates that governments are producing value for their electorates. The appeal is obvious.

Whether many voters care very much about the arcane world of Pisa ratings is doubtful to say the least. The woman or man on the Clapham omnibus is more likely to be interested in how well schools and colleges serve their children.

Similarly, teachers are far more likely to be focused on GCSEs, Sats and the like than they are on how the UK compares with Estonia.

And over this past year, the statistical methodologies of Pisa and its conclusions have seemed less relevant than ever. Small variations in an international benchmarking exercise have paled into insignificance alongside the seismic task of providing continuity of learning and support for children through periods of lockdown and self-isolation. 

So, in the wake of the pandemic, let’s not default back to genuflecting at the altar of Pisa. 

It is a moderately interesting exercise, which can prompt us to look at what we might learn from other education systems. But a single strand of data does not do justice to our schools and we should have faith in the broad approach to education, in what we provide within and around the UK’s classrooms. 

The past year has highlighted education UK’s many strengths, alongside its weaknesses. One useful after-effect of Covid may be helping us to shrug off some of that Pisa-induced global inferiority. 

There’s still much to do, but we should feel prouder of what the staff in our schools and colleges achieve on behalf of the nation’s children and young people.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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