There is a very old educational joke that begins with a teacher dealing with times tables in her classroom. ‘We’ll do the five times table today.’ The lesson begins and the class begins the tables…one five is five, two fives are ten, three fives are fifteen, four fives are twenty… She then stops the pupils. ‘George, what are you saying….you’re only saying dah, dah, di, dah.’ ‘Yes, miss’. ‘Why?’ ‘Well I know the tune, I just haven’t got the words yet.’ Today, the Education Secretary, Nikki Morgan, announced that pupils should know up to the twelve times table by age 11, that they should have lessons on punctuation and grammar and teach ‘British values’, whatever they really are. The problem with each of these initiatives is that you really can’t disagree with them: by aged 11 pupils should know their times tables, be able to punctuate and write in grammatically correct ways and have some understanding of the values that underpin our society.
This is motivated, in large part, to the desire of the educational establishment to push Britain up the international league tables. The problem is that league tables, whether domestic or global, are inherently biased tools through which to measure educational performance. It all depends on what is being measured—what is being left in and what is excluded. So the Pisa tests showed the UK as a middle-ranking education performer, overtaken by high-achieving systems in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and ambitious, hungry improvers such as Poland and Vietnam, an unimpressive performance that provided proof of the need for radical improvement. However, the latest international league table, published by Pearson and compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, places the UK in sixth place overall and only beaten by Finland in Europe. The Pearson tables includes university-level information as well as school-level tests - and to get really specific, it measures entry to a type of academic university path which is likely to boost the UK's position rather than some other countries. There are shorter, vocational higher education courses--more popular in some other countries--that are not included in these rankings. So which is a more accurate reflection? Pisa has more international status, but the Pearson rankings use a wider range of indicators.
The problem is that there is no one agreed test for determining how a successful education system should be measured. In many respects it’s a case of smoke and mirrors. Some things can be easily measured such as whether students are better or worse at solving mathematical problems or whether an individual has reached a particular level of reading or not. The Pisa tests, for instance, measure reading, but not writing. It's much harder to measure the handling of ideas rather than numbers. How would you compare written analytical skills across so many different cultures and languages? How would you compare creativity or innovation? The same problem applies to measuring a sense of individual or collective well-being or really anything concerned with socialisation. The issue is how these tests are used and that comes down to political priorities: not surprisingly teacher unions have jumped on the Pearson tests to show that teaching is doing quite well while the government highlighted the inadequacies illuminated (or not) by the Pisa tests. Remember the phrase allegedly coined by Benjamin Disraeli, though it first appeared after his death and is not found in any of his writings: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’