The Welfare State We're In, The website of the book by James Bartholomew
December 08, 2010
Britain 28th in reading - below Estonia and Poland

The latest Pisa study on educational attainment is given surprisingly modest coverage in some newspapers. It shows Britain falling quite dramatically in the standings as the coverage in the Daily Mail makes very clear:

Travesty of our 'stagnating' schools: In a damning indictment of Labour, OECD condemns British education which is now inferior to Estonia's

By Kate Loveys

Britain has plummeted down worldwide education rankings in the last decade, according to definitive figures which shame Labour’s record on schools.

Despite doubled spending since 2000, the education of teenagers has ‘stagnated at best’.

The verdict is a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s mantra that his three top priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’.

Falling behind: British students are at a disadvantage compared to many others around the world

Britain has now fallen behind such relatively poor nations as Estonia, Poland and the Slovak Republic in reading, maths and science.

Although spending has risen from £35.8billion to £71billion, the education of teenagers has failed to register any improvement and in some areas has deteriorated rapidly.

In stunning proof that taxpayers did not get value for money, the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science over the same period. Poland now ranks ten places ahead of the UK in reading and is three ahead in maths.

Even more disturbingly, the study found that a fifth of 15-year-old Britons are ‘functionally illiterate’, which ‘significantly reduces their chances of success in later life’.

The figures were released yesterday by the highly respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which compared the standards of 15-year-olds in 65 developed countries.

British children’s poor reading skills are said to be partly because they spend too much time on computers rather than reading books, but are also a tragic reflection of the education they have received.

Nor has it helped that the UK has a relatively low proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And having some of the world’s ‘best-educated’ parents has not improved the standards of Britain’s children – raising serious questions about the effective role of parents in UK schools.

The study was based on two-hour tests of 500,000 15-year-old schoolchildren by the OECD. Some 65 countries were listed in this year’s rankings compared with 54 three years ago.

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD said overall scores achieved by UK pupils were ‘stagnant at best, or marginally lower, whereas many other countries have seen quite significant improvements’.

The UK, despite being the eighth-biggest spender per pupil on education, with an average of £8,892 a year at secondary level, performed below the international average in maths, only just above in reading and slightly better in science.

The Far East had strong performers with the region of Shanghai-China coming top in all three subjects and Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan all ranking high.

Finland, which places strong emphasis on teacher quality, was ranked highest European nation.

Subject by subject: This table shows just how far the UK has fallen down the league tables

Read more:

The OECD Pisa studies are far from perfect, for reasons mentioned in The Welfare State We're In. In at least one earlier report, the study flattered the British state schooling in two ways: 1. The overall figure included private schools which had outstanding results on an international basis and 2. Some schools declined to take part in the study and it seemed likely at the time that these were schools with lower attainment levels. So a drop in the British position may be partly because the OECD has simply improved its methods of assessing British schools.

The remark about 20% functional illiteracy is, in itself, an appalling condemnation of British state education.

Meanwhile I cannot help being a little suspicious of the stand-out result for Shanghai. I note that the assessment was done by a third party. I can imagine that the Chinese authorities saw it as a matter of pride that the country should do well rather than that it should be objective. So I wonder whether any techniques were used to skew the results.

But one thing about the article below is most remarkable: the assertion that the vast majority of Chinese children have private tuition in addition to their official schooling. This is also true in South Korea.

However, the OECD noted that China has long been organised around competitive exams, with schools working their students long hours every day and into the weekend.

Students are accustomed to "intense examinations and tests" and therefore may have been better suited to the PISA test. In addition, it estimated that eight out of ten Shanghainese schoolchildren get additional, out-of-hours, private tuition.

Meanwhile, Chinese students tend to spend less time on sport and other activities which are not core components of the "gaokao", a set of exams that determines their place at university, and indeed in life.

The pressure of the gaokao has been blamed for a lack of creativity in China by some critics. Xu Jilin, a professor of history at East China Normal University, whose son is at a Shanghai middle school, wrote in October that "this rigid examination system has created an exam-oriented education from the kindergarten, a destruction of talent and waste of youth."

He added that he felt that 80 per cent of his son's studies had not helped him learn something new, but had prepared him for tests. "Doing exercises every day is like practising gymnastics, repeating the same moves every day, dozens or hundreds of times in order to make sure that absolutely no errors are made during the exam."

The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international third-party, working with Chinese authorities, the OECD said.

Full OECD report here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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