Another round of PISA tables puts the educational establishment on the defensive about the UK’s mediocre performance. It’s certainly true the way the comparisons are made is open to dispute (www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10191157/International-school-league-tables-utterly-wrong.html) and it’s also right to argue that Michael Gove’s policies continue to undermine teacher trust and lower morale still further. It’s equally the case that few international organisations associated with education encourage the social segregation that exists in Britain’s schools. It’s also important that educationalists continue to refer to Finland as a high performing country that has no league tables or primary school tests.
Going on the defensive, or arguing that PISA results should ‘guide, not drive’ education policy (www.nasuwt.org.uk/Whatsnew/NASUWTNews/PressReleases/index.htm) may be necessary, but it’s not really adequate. With the top five PISA performers in maths and reading being in East Asia (South Korea tops the overall OECD list, Finland trails in sixth) there are harrowing reports about the pressures imposed on young people in these systems. In South Korea in particular, the double shifts they put in and the amount spent on private tuition (www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25187993). Rather than just focussing on the statistical outcomes, it’s important to question the basis of what counts as ‘education’ in the PISA leaders. Most UK children, regardless of their performance level, would not be prepared to tolerate this sort of environment and few parents would want them to anyway.
The economic achievements in South Asia cannot be disputed, but like with all countries the contribution made by education is just one aspect. With almost any economist able to provide a list of other variables that also explain growth rates, the ‘education fever’ of Chinese and South Korean parents is as much a consequence of the changes in these countries as it’s a cause, but despite booming growth rates and the increased opportunities for upwards social mobility into professional and managerial employment however, large numbers will likely be disappointed. Even more so as East Asian economies begin to slow down.
Yet in the UK, with its increasingly moribund economy, politicians but also many professional educators, continue to have ‘Too Great Expectations’ of what schools, colleges and universities are going to achieve when, the post-recession new jobs created are just likely to be low skilled and the current generation of young people facing downward social mobility. As The Guardian’s Peter Wilby concludes (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/01/dont-let-pisa-league-tables-dictate-schooling?CMP=twt_gu); we must not let PISA tables determine how we educate our children. But a failure to respond to PISA by also asking questions about what education should be for will leave Michael Gove on the offensive.