Will Tuesday's Pisa results be Gove's report card?

Pisa 2018 results are likely to be seen as a verdict on the reforms of one of England's most controversial education secretaries

Claudia Civinini

report card

When the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment are published on Tuesday, many will view them as a verdict on one of our most controversial education secretaries.

Michael Gove frequently used England’s performance in previous editions of Pisa – and the country's apparent fall down the resulting rankings – as a justification for the sweeping reforms he would introduce from 2010.

But now, with results from Pisa 2018 being released, are his chickens about to come home to roost? The 15-year-olds who took the latest tests in reading, science and maths for the international study were just starting key stage 2 when Mr Gove took office at the Department for Education.

And, more to the point, they were beginning secondary school when Mr Gove's controversial new national curriculum was first introduced to the nation's classrooms. 

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Sam Freedman, one of Mr Gove's advisers when he was at the DfE, fully expects next week's Pisa report to be seen as a judgement on his former boss.  

“I think it will be certainly seen in that light, and if it went down a lot or up a lot, it would be an indication whether the changes have been a success, at least in terms of what Pisa tests,” he told Tes.

“But there’s a likelihood that if it has moved a little in either direction, people will overact to that. It’s quite possible that any movement will not be statistically significant but people will probably take it as if it is.”

Mr Freedman points out that not only will the latest Pisa candidates have had a large part of their education under the new curriculum, many of them will also have been in the new academies that Mr Gove created. However, he said, his guess is that there won’t be a significant change on Tuesday.

“My guess is that England won’t change very much and you won’t be able to read very much into it – but I haven’t seen the data,” he said.

Caution urged

NEU teaching union joint general secretary Mary Bousted said: “I think we have to be cautious in attributing any reform in any national state, four years later, to a position in a league table, because the position on the league table is not just about the curriculum that’s taught in school or the way children are assessed.

“It’s also about whether you have a country that has more equality, how much you are spending on education, the ratio of qualified teachers in what subjects, and then there is a whole question about what the ranking in the Pisa table actually means.”

“It’s difficult to disentangle how much curriculum has played a part, how much exams and assessment have played a part, how much those parts of education policy actually played a part. I will say however that what is abundantly clear is that Gove’s direction of travel is completely opposed to what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is behind Pisa, is saying about what effective education systems should look like.”

Failure predicted

John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT teaching union and an international education expert, told Tes that he doesn’t expect to see any positive developments overall in England’s performance. And if Pisa 2018 were to be seen as Mr Gove’s report card, it would probably be a fail, he predicted.

“I think he has failed," he said. "I think the reforms were always going to fail because there wasn’t any balance or any genuine systemic partnership between the government and the teaching profession working together to improve the system at a national and regional level and it focused on structural reforms that fractured the system.

“What the OECD found is you should have a coherent education system and the one thing that England does not have is a coherent education system, courtesy of Michael Gove and his reforms.” 

But UCL Institute of Education academic John Jerrim, who wrote the Pisa 2015 country report for England, has doubts over whether the latest results can be used to judge the Gove reforms.

“There are so many other factors that could be going on at the same time," he said. "You could think about austerity, or school resources, things that could partly explain results and trends overtime. Using [Pisa] to judge policy reforms is a little bit tricky.

“Also, even if it was possible, when would be the right time to measure it? Would it be 2018 or 2021? I am not sure, although it’s worth noting that these kids would have been through eight years of Conservative government, so the majority of their time would have been under Conservative rule."

The Conservative Party and the OECD were contacted for comment.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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