PISA 2013 and English Schools – First impressions

Dec 3, 2013

There is obviously a huge amount to digest from the just released PISA 2012 – 4 volumes, over 2000 pages of text, and more numbers than even the most highly proficient mathematician in Shanghai can easily assimilate. Expect to see a lot of much more detailed analyses about the UK over the next three years.

But in an effort to take a quick snapshot view at the potential policy consequences, and beneath the headline message for the UK (“no change”), the most interesting thing I found from Andreas Schleicher’s pre briefing was the characteristics of high performing countries he identified:

  1. A commitment to universal achievement. Top performing countries believe – really believe – that all children can succeed. This goes beyond a parroting of this line, and is evident in the much higher number of students, teachers and parents answering positively questions to do with their own achievement and the extent to which it is within their control (vol III table 6.1.c and related charts).
  2. Incentives and accountability. In general, top performing countries have more autonomy over curriculum and assessment. However, there is an important caveat to this. In countries where teachers are not involved in management discussions; where there are not standardised (at school level) approaches towards delivering curriculum; or where comparative performance data is not public, increased autonomy actually correlates with lower overall performance. (tables IV 1.13 to IV 1.16)
  3. Moving resources where they are needed. Across the OECD, once GDP per capita reaches around $20k, there is no link between overall education resource expenditure and outcomes. Where top performers make their mark is in using their resources more effectively. This typically includes higher salaries for teachers, including in variable pay in more rural and challenging schools (vol IV, fig 1.10) and greater equity in spending between schools in richer and poorer areas within a country (vol IV, table 1.3 and fig 1.11), including in enrolment in pre-primary education. Interestingly, although within a country there was a correlation between increased instruction time and higher performance, this disappeared when looking between countries – suggesting that any benefit is more than outweighed by differences in quality of instruction and the variance in that between countries

Some immediate observations on what this might mean for England:

  1. Some recent evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on aspiration showed that contrary to what many believe, parents and children across the income scale have similar aspirations for children’s future goals. Where there is a difference, it is in the understanding of how to realise these (which brings in questions of access to support, understanding of educational and career pathways, financial support and so on).  This also underlines the increasing importance of what is variously described as character education or non-cognitive skills. For pupils (especially girls) to have self-efficacy before they approach a task, and resilience after a task if it has not gone well, is really important. Michael Gove has spoken passionately about challenging those – on both the left and right – who he accuses of not having faith in the ability of all children to succeed – either because ‘poverty is destiny’ or because ‘genetics trumps effort’. There is still some way to go in eradicating these attitudes on both sides of the political spectrum, as some recent events have demonstrated.
  2. England is already on the far right-hand side of the OECD charts for freedom for schools across all dimensions (both curricular freedoms, but also financial and personnel freedoms). I was very struck by the findings that absent public data and systems of accountability, autonomy tends to lead to poorer results. This makes it all the more important that accountability through data is maintained and even extended. The possibilities of what is termed ‘big data’ are interesting with regards to schools. For example, could big data allow all parents of 10 year old children choosing secondary schools to be able to compare “how this school does for children like mine aged 11 compared to others in the local area”? More broadly, the findings on teacher participation needing to be present are quite sensible. As David Weston has pointed out frequently, building a school’s capacity to improve is vital. The accountability findings also demonstrate that there needs to be some form of middle tier authorisation and oversight for Academies and free schools, as I have written about before. It will be interesting to see how the school Chancellor / Commissioner roles play out in this regard
  3. These PISA findings provide continued evidence that in English schools, overall financial resources don’t correlate with increased attainment, as others have also demonstrated. The policy consequences of this are fascinating – with implications for everything from the future of the schools ring fence after 2015 through to the speed of change through the National Funding Formula. There is also an interesting sub plot which is the extent to which many top performers– including Shanghai – use performance pay and other incentives to move more effective teachers to schools where they are most needed – something which Performance Related Pay will allow schools in England to also do.


Jonathan Simons

Jonathan Simons
Director of Policy and Advocacy, Varkey Foundation Read Full Bio
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