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U-turn? English pupils sat Pisa “thinking skills” tests despite government vow that they wouldn’t

Ministers have quietly executed a U-turn and entered England for new international tests of pupils’ thinking skills, TES can reveal. But their officials are refusing to say why or when they changed their minds.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey took place last year and included, for the first time, an optional test on problem solving.

When TES approached the Department for Education (DfE) about the new tests in October 2011, a spokesman said: “We are not taking part in the 2012 problem solving test, because we don’t want to overburden schools.”

That seemed a little strange bearing in mind the importance that Michael Gove, education secretary, had been placing on Pisa, arguing that no nation could afford to ignore it.

Critics argued England’s absence from the test made a mockery of Mr Gove’s emphasis on international evidence and claimed he was “cherry-picking” the pieces that matched his views.

“I don’t think it washes,” John Bangs, who sits on the trade union advisory committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which produces Pisa, said at the time.

“I think that when you sign up to Pisa, as Gove has done, you sign up to every aspect.”

But England was not taking part and that, as far as anyone knew, was that.

Last month when TES approached the DfE for reaction to the news that foreign language tests were being planned for Pisa, a spokeswoman suddenly revealed that England had taken part in the 2012 problem solving tests after all.

When it was pointed out that this was something of an about turn, the DfE said the opt out decision “was originally taken in 2009”, neglecting to address the fact that the Coalition had apparently been happy to stand by it right up until October 2011. And what about the burden on schools? Why was this no longer seen as a problem?  

A month of further inquiries has failed to elicit any rationale for the DfE’s change of heart, beyond the fact that a review had taken place. Could it be that Mr Gove was embarrassed by the cherry-picking accusation? We will probably never know.

But the result is that this traditionalist fan of subject knowledge has signed up to test skills designed to be developed through “progressive teaching methods” such as “inquiry-based learning” and to prepare students for “unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient”.

Does this mean Mr Gove will continue to ignore his natural prejudices and embrace the tests of creativity being suggested for future editions of Pisa? Only time will tell.   

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