How countries lead the world in education

By Mike Baker

Image caption,
Could schools in China have lessons for the UK?

After the World Cup disappointment, England took a bashing again with publication of this week's international league tables of educational standards achieved by 15-year-olds.

The OECD's Pisa study showed that England, and the rest of the UK, had lost ground compared to other countries since the last time these tests were taken by 15-year-olds around the world.

Thank goodness for the cricket or it would have been a hat-trick of setbacks.

But there is more than one way to look at these tables: you can be distracted by the UK's relative decline or you can look outwards to see what can be learnt from the most successful school systems around the world .

And "looking outwards" to learn from others is, says the OECD, a key characteristic of high-performing school systems.

Indeed, apart from taking a swipe at the last government over England's Pisa position, the education secretary Michael Gove has done just that, saying we should import aspects of the best school systems in the world.

But where to look? After all, the leading countries are a rainbow coalition: South Korea, Finland, parts of China, parts of Canada, and Singapore.

Private schools?

What could these very different education systems possibly have in common that might help us identify the essential ingredients of educational success?

Well, the good news is that there are some common features shared by the best school systems, even though in terms of issues such as class size, national curriculum and testing regimes they are indeed very different.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion drawn from the rich seam of data by the OECD experts is that the wealth of a country is not a major factor in the variation between countries' educational performance.

As the OECD put it, the world is no longer divided into "rich/well-educated" - and "poor/badly-educated" - countries.

Another factor that the OECD suggests we can discount is the hoary issue of whether we are better off with more or fewer private schools.

Although private schools do get better raw results in many countries, the OECD found that - when you stripped out the effect of pupils' socio-economic background - the state schools did as well, or better, than private schools in most countries.

So, if wealth and the balance of public-private schools are not major factors in driving educational excellence, what are the key drivers?

It seems one of the key influences is the quality of teachers.

Finland, South Korea and Singapore have all made teaching a high status, tough-to-enter, profession with a strong emphasis on continuous professional development.

Interestingly, Indonesia - one of the fastest risers in the table (albeit from a low base) - is in the middle of an ambitious programme to retrain its teachers and to pay them more.

The OECD analysts also conclude that the best-performing countries prioritise improving teachers' pay over reducing class sizes.

School autonomy is another positive factor but only if it is matched with high accountability - systems where schools are left on their own and not monitored regularly do not tend to perform so well.

While this may be encouraging news for the coalition government's policies in England, there are other OECD recommendations which do not fit quite so well with their current policies.

More competitive

For example, the OECD experts note that high-performing countries tend to allow schools greater freedom to devise their own curriculum.

While academies are being given that freedom, the forthcoming review of the national curriculum looks set to prescribe in more detail the knowledge pupils should have, albeit in a narrower range of subjects.

High performing countries also tend to allow schools to devise their own forms of testing pupils, rather than imposing them from outside.

Another OECD finding is that school systems that are highly stratified - with different types of schools and pupils directed along different pathways - tend to perform less well than others.

The OECD also says that countries which encourage a "more competitive environment" in which schools compete with each other for students do not systematically achieve better results.

As an overview, the OECD says "those school systems that grant individual schools authority to make decisions about curricula and assessments, while limiting school competition, are more likely to be performing above the OECD average".

The OECD data certainly offers no support for the argument that a system of academically selective schools will lead to overall better standards.

'Wake-up call'

So what has gone wrong with the UK?

At a presentation on the Pisa data at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Qatar this week, Ian Whitwam of the OECD was asked why some countries were falling back?

"In some cases," he said, "it's laziness and for them it is a wake-up call... and that might apply to the USA and the UK. It's time to do something about it".

Learning from what works well elsewhere - but without rejecting what is already good in our system - looks like a good first step.

Mike Baker is a freelance education journalist

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