Education: what works and what is a fad

The latest PISA report from the OECD has stimulated debate over what brings about success or failure. Here is what the Times Education Supplement reckons the report reveals:

“good graduates, trained well, and constantly, in class” are said to be “essential to excellent school performance”.

Discipline is “key”.

Autonomy: “there is a clear relationship between autonomy and outcomes”.

Poverty: “poverty does not automatically doom pupils to undreachievement”. Here the TES has extracted a remarkable statistic from the report. “In the UK, 24 per cent of disadvantaged students excel in school; in the best-performing countries it is 40 per cent”

Making schools’ data transparent: thee is “no proof” that this “necessarily improves performance”.

Competition: “no[t]…any evidence that competition between schools elevates the system as a whole”

The TES editorial is written with a political slant which I have put aside, at least so far. One political point is that the TES suggests is that the poor apparent showing on competition as a positive factor is a bad indicator for the Coalition’s education plans. The TES editorial adds, “The Conservatives’ free-market darling, Sweden, plunged in the rankings”. I have not yet been able to look at the report in detail. But I would suggest, on the basis of a previous PISA report, that the debate about competition is far from over. In that earlier report, the system of schooling that did better than anywhere else in the entire OECD coverage was the independent sector of schooling in Britain. That, of course, is where competition exists far more freely than it does in Sweden.

To my surprise, I have just come across the following report in the Guardian about the worth of private schooling:

Countries with a higher proportion of children in private schools do better in exams, research published today by Harvard academics shows.

Competition from private schools improves achievement among both state and privately-educated students and decreases a country’s overall spending on education, the study of 220,000 teenagers in 29 countries found.

If a country increases the number of its children in private schools by 10%, knowledge in maths for state and privately-educated pupils improves by the equivalent of almost an extra half-year in school, the study published in the Economic Journal reported.

A 10% rise in a country’s private school enrolments also results in the reading of both state and privately-educated pupils improving by the equivalent of an extra fifth of a school year.

The researchers, from Harvard and the University of Munich, used the results of an international study conducted every three years on hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds in more than 50 countries in reading, maths and science – the so-called Pisa tests.

On the other hand, Finland and its apparent success according to PISA, appears to challenge a great deal of what many people in Britain – both from Left side and the Right – have come to think of as important for successful education. First, it is apparently a government monopoly. Also, this Guardian report says,

The Finnish school day is short and interspersed with bursts of running around, shrieking and sledging outdoors. Children start when they’re older, the year they turn seven and there is no pressure on them to do anything academic before then.

The Finnish education system contrasts sharply with England. Every Finnish child gets a free school meal, and a free education, which extends to university level.

There are no league tables, and no school inspections.

There is, however, regular testing.

Of course, Finland may have all sorts of other factors that explain its success. I wonder what are the social conditions? What level of incivility is there? How much of a welfare state is there (apart from education)? Are the schools run by the central government or local government and, if local, how local? And is there much private tuition (which is very common in other top-ranked places such as Shanghai).

Education is tricky subject.  It is hard to measure success and it is not agreed by everyone what success is.

As usual, when PISA is mentioned, one must add that there have been controversies over how reliable the figures are.

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  2. What’s wrong with free education for Africa
  3. The failure of state education – some recent figures
  4. The attack on private education through charity law is not over
  5. Has state education peaked?
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One Response to Education: what works and what is a fad

  1. Janet says:

    Problems with summarising PISA results:

    The recent OECD PISA reports ran to five volumes plus country-specific data, charts and summaries. Unfortunately, the media rushed into print relying on misleading figures (published by our own Department of Education) and selective quotes from a summary. The quotes were taken out of context and chosen to support whatever was the editoral bias of a particular paper (cf The Daily Mail which carried a particularly erroneous article). The website has the full story about the misleading figures.

    You mention private schooling above, but do not mention the OECD finding on private v public schools (page 13, paragraph 53, ‘Viewing the United Kingdom School System Via the Prism of PISA’). It says, “On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the United Kingdom even of 62 score points). However, once the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for, public schools come out with a slight advantage of 7 score points… (in the United Kingdom public schools outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for).”

    It appears, then, that it is the intake of private schools which determines their outcome (bit like grammar schools) NOT the teaching they receive which is no better (indeed, according to OECD slightly worse) than the teaching in the public sector.

    You also mention that Finland has regular testing. Finnish teachers do test their pupils continuously – but testing is teacher-led, formative and diagnostic. The results are not used to judge schools. In Finland, according to OECD, there is ‘little appetite’ for the kind of testing regime used in the UK and US (OECD 2010, ‘Finland: Slow and Steady Reform for Consistently High Results).

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