First Fruits of Education Reform

Dec 4, 2019

 

The UK should feel deservedly pleased with the results of this week’s PISA rankings. Since the last rankings three years ago, it has risen from 22nd to 14th in reading, from 15th to 14th in science and from 27th to 18th in maths. The last is a particular achievement, with the UK improving nine score points over the last three years, one of only a handful of countries to secure a statistically significant increase. The gender gap and rich-poor attainment gap in the UK is also narrower in both cases than the OECD average.

In England, the 15-year olds who took the tests last year would have spent a significant part of their school years in a system shaped by the major reforms introduced by Michael Gove and continued by others, notably Schools Minister Nick Gibb. While some reforms – notably the phonics revolution in Key Stage One – will not have had time to fully work through the system, this year’s results were rightly being seen as a critical test for the reforms, the policy thinking for which was, in many cases, first developed by Policy Exchange over a decade ago. And the results  – with one major exception – show a clear vindication of these reforms, with almost all of the improvement being driven by the results of pupils in England.

The success of the English reforms becomes particularly clear when comparing the results with that of Scotland, where the so-called Curriculum for Excellence has been condemned by educational experts as ‘disastrous’ and having had ‘a significant negative impact’ on children in key areas. In 2009, Scotland led England in maths and reading and was just one point behind on science. Now, England is a point ahead in reading, 15 points ahead in maths and 17 points ahead on science – a significant gap. Overall, England has both the highest absolute results of the four UK nations and significantly higher improvement than both Scotland and Wales (rates of improvement in Wales are comparable, though from a much lower base). 

2019

Reading

Maths

Science

 

England

505

504

507

NI

501

492

491

Scotland

504

489

490

Wales

483

487

488

Difference

2019 – 2009

Reading

Maths

Science

 

England

10

11

-8

NI

2

0

-20

Scotland

4

-10

-24

Wales

7

15

-8

 

What is also interesting is that these results come over a period during which the school system in England has undergone a real-terms reduction in per pupil funding of 8%. While at first sight remarkable, this should be unsurprising to experts in school policy, for funding levels make very little difference to outcomes – a fact confirmed by the fact that the UK’s PISA scores plummeted between 2000 and 2006, a time of one of the greatest budgetary uplifts in living memory. Indeed, the OECD goes so far as to say that beyond a threshold of $50,000 of investment between the ages of 6 and 15, ‘there is almost no relationship between the amount invested in education and student performance.’ That is not to say that more money cannot be spent usefully in the school system; in particular, the funding uplift promised by all three major parties in this election is likely to be essential to tackle the worsening crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, which if not addressed threatens to undermine the recent progress in attainment. But how money is spent is far more important than the sheer quantum of resource.

The overall positive picture contains one significant fly in the ointment. Despite climbing one place in the rankings, the UK’s score actually fell four points, a fall which continues a consistent decline, including a cumulative fall of nine points since 2009. Indeed, the UK’s science performance has either remained static or fallen in every PISA ranking since the initiative was introduced in 2000. If the UK is to be globally competitive in the knowledge economy of the future, this must be addressed and rapidly. It is perhaps notable that there has not been the equivalent intervention in science to match the focus on phonics, times tables and basic arithmetic that has been seen in reading and maths, and that shortages of specialised teachers are particularly acute in science subjects. Education Ministers must act to ensure science teaching methods and curricula have a similar rigour to those which have been put in place for reading and maths, and that the foundations are appropriately laid at primary school, if the UK is to reverse its decline in this critical area.

Finally, despite the overall positive picture, there should be no room for complacency. While the UK is comfortably above the OECD average, it remains well behind top performers such as Singapore, Hong Kong or the new European front-runner, Estonia. This is particularly so when we look at the  top performers, those who attained Levels 5 and 6 in the Pisa tests, and who are likely to be particularly vital in driving the innovations, enterprises and public service initiatives of the future. In all three areas, the UK is a little above the OECD average, with 11%, 13% and 10% of pupils achieving at this level in, respectively, reading, maths and science. In top performing countries this proportion is significantly higher: in Singapore, for example, the equivalent figures are 26%, 37% and 21%.

The ability of such education systems to educate well over twice the proportion of students to the highest levels demonstrates that, despite recent improvements, there remain considerable grounds for further improvement. We know what works: high standards, good discipline and a knowledge-rich curriculum, combined with strong accountability and proper support for teachers. Whoever takes office on 13th December would do well to strengthen and deepen the last decade’s reforms.

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