Testing, League Tables and Failure
Why England’s education system is in danger of imploding
Much has changed across England’s educational landscape in recent years and whilst there has been much which has been positive, I feel that there the system is in danger of imploding.
So – where has it all gone so wrong and what can we do about it?
Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies of the PISA (OECD PISA 2009) tests on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with super achievers such as South Korea and Singapore. In the most recent survey in 2009 Finland slipped slightly, with students in Shanghai, China, taking the best scores, but the Finns are still near the very top and Shanghai is just one city in a vast country – hardly representative. Throughout the same period, the PISA performance of the United States and England has been middling, at best. But what is it about the Finnish system which has led to such outstanding outcomes for students and what are the messages for us in England?
Partenan (2011) comments:
“Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity. Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counselling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.”
This is where a huge problem lies. The driver for improvement has not been ‘excellence’, but ‘equity’ and in the UK the disparity between rich and poor is growing rather then narrowing. The Government sees schools as the vehicle to close this gap, but the inherent, structural mechanisms being used to drive educational reform are very likely to have the opposite effect to that which is desired. The Government really must learn from countries such as Finland, no matter how impalpable the message and not simply ‘cherry-pick’ bits of systems from around the world which happen to fit with their political views.
2. What PISA really says about the England’s standards of education.
There are a number of concerns about the way in which the UK government is using the PISA results, since Ministers constantly berate teachers using PISA as the evidence of our failure. OFQUAL (2011) published a Progress Report (International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment) in February 2011 making a number of points. They listed several major criticisms:
- Differences between countries’ performance are not that large…usually statistically insignificant.
- Whether or not a country has moved up or down the league tables is notthat meaningful; partly because the absolute differences in scores between countries are not that great.
- The constituent group of comparators changes from study to study and from year to year.
They point to three major but dangerous assumptions that:
- Items tested for are somehow an objective measure of what is best.
- Learners undertaking the study are a balanced representation of all learners at that stage of education.
- Learners sampled in each country are equally motivated to perform well in the tests.
Kreiner (2011), Danish statistician, says “PISA is not reliable at all. He points out that in the reading tests 28 questions were supposed to be equally difficult in every country but it seems that PISA has failed here as differential item functioning (DIF)- items with different degrees of difficulty in different countries – are common.” In fact he couldn’t find any that worked without bias. Items are simply more difficult in some countries. He used his analysis to show that the UK moves up to 8 or down to 36, depending how you look at it.
What is clear is that to use the PISA results to castigate the UK’s education system is at best unwise and possibly extremely damaging. Interestingly, Germany’s performance is similar to that of the UK and yet Germany’s government is not using PISA to berate their teachers and school leaders.
Much has been written about Generation-Y (those born around 1982 – 2000) and the characteristics which tend to describe them. The work of Mark McCrindle, amongst others, has been very influential here and enlightened companies are responding to the needs of this demanding generation. A useful paper is McCrindle (2003) which his has serious implications for how we recruit and retain teachers. What is striking is that this research strongly suggests that Generation-Y is influenced by different aspects to their predecessors. For them, their close peers are vitally important and rather than making independent decisions based on core values, they live in a culture encouraging them to embrace community values, and to reach consensus.
McCrindle argues that Gen Y is seeking after more than just friendships. They want community; to be understood, accepted, respected, and included. “This generation are looking for more than just continuing the consumerism experiment. Indeed when deciding to accept a job, salary ranks sixth in order of importance after training, management style, work flexibility, staff activities, and non-financial rewards. The young people of this generation do not live to work- but rather they work to live. A job merely provides the income to do what they want to do. They are on a search for fun, for quality friendships, for a fulfilling purpose, and for spiritual meaning.”
I would suggest that the current UK’s Government attitude towards teachers is not fostering this type of engagement with this generation and is in fact, in direct contrast to what this generation are looking for in their careers.
Brian Lightman (General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders) comments on the new Chief Inspector of Schools announcement that all school inspections will be with zero notice from September 2012: ” Above all however this proposal is deeply insulting and makes a complete mockery of the government’s increasingly hollow claims that it wishes to create a high status profession. How can a profession which cannot even be trusted to be given the courtesy of 24 hours’ notice for inspection be described as high status?”
The evidence is mounting. The numbers of people applying to train as teachers in the UK has slumped, compared with the same period last year. Statistics from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry show that overall applications have fallen by 29%. The number of people applying to start English secondary teacher training courses in Chemistry has fallen by 41.3%, German by 42%, Spanish 47%, English 39.1% and Mathematics 26.9%.
What is clear is that this is, surely, not the way to engage with Generation-Y and by publicly continuing with the government’s very negative attitude towards teachers those younger graduates who might be attracted to teaching as a career are much more likely to choose alternatives.
The Government has deliberately set an adversarial culture where there are some winners and many losers. I would argue that a key role for government is to set the right culture so that people will make necessary changes themselves rather than naming and shaming through league tables and inspection and trying to dictate everything from the centre.
Fullan (2011) suggests that choosing the right drivers to ensure that change happens is crucial and that in the rush to move forward leaders, especially from countries that have not been progressing, tend to choose the wrong drivers. He states that the culprits are:
- Accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building.
- Individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual vs group solutions.
- Technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry vs instruction.
- Fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.
It is clear that the above four components have a place in the reform mix, but as Michael Fullan says, they can never be successful drivers. Fullan suggests that Countries which do lead with them (such as the US, Australia and the UK) will fail to achieve whole system reform.
The point is that the right drivers mentioned above; capacity building, group solutions, instruction and systemic strategies are effective because they work directly on changing the culture of school systems. This mind-set generates individual and collective motivation and corresponding skills to transform the system. This is vitally important since, as Fullan states, the wrong four drivers demotivate the masses whose energy is crucial for success; the right four drivers do the opposite.
Fullan’s paper expands the arguments significantly but I hope that very brief synopsis gives an idea as to why the UK (and the US and Australia) are following the wrong path.
Before leaving Fullan, however, he makes one other vitally important point and this comes from the OECD: “In moving beyond consultation to involvement the reform process becomes orientated towards transforming schools into learning organisations with teaching professionals in the lead” (OECD 2011, 52). He comments that a serious mistake is to involve some teachers in key deliberations and then assume that you have involved the profession.
The main problem with the England’s approach at present is that it very clearly results in a few winners and many losers. What is worse is that the losers, in terms of schools and communities, are castigated publicly through league tables and through inspection. Since only a few can ever be at the top of any specific ‘pile’ the circumstances are set for widespread disillusionment, anxiety and eventually disengagement. I would argue that we need a process of improvement which values teachers as professionals and which engages them in the improvement process; as professionals. Finland recognised this when it re-engineered its education system some years ago and an excellent book which explains this in detail is that by Sahlberg (2012).
The point which I feel is important here is that whilst the UK Government constantly emphasises equity, the policies which are being imposed on the UK system are almost certainly having the opposite effect.
As this paper is being written, the Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee in England, Graham Stuart, is demanding that ministers change the way they measure schools since he says that the current league tables are denying pupils a ‘rounded education’. Stuart warned that the indicator of five A*-Cs including English and Maths had damaged the education of both the most able pupils and those who were falling behind due to a focus on borderline C/D grade pupils. He says that the measure is out of line with ministers’ aim to improve the performance of the most disadvantaged pupils. Stuart said: “The government has said one of its top priorities overall is narrowing the gap between outcomes for rich and poor. And yet the accountability system they have put in place virtually ensures that attention will be focussed not on the lowest performing, which sadly we know are typically the poorest, but will instead divert attention away from them”. He continued: “This is a terrible irony which must be addressed”. This is in direct conflict to the position of fellow ministers, but I would argue that he is right.
Much more could be written about the impact of league tables and ‘floor targets’ but suffice to say, Mr Stuart continues: “The sad fact is there is currently very little alignment between accountability and the education policy outcomes we are trying to achieve”. He continues “The centrality of (the main GCSE) measure to secondary schools has led to an over emphasis on qualifications and preparation for them at the expense of a more rounded education.”
Professor Mick Waters, a former government adviser on the national curriculum, has called for a thorough review of the examination system, “We should investigate seriously what the exam system is for, does every child need this volume of exams and what is the best way to manage it and how can we retain its integrity given its burgeoning size. It doesn’t get investigated properly because grown-ups went through the system and look back with a wry smile and think that’s what childhood is all about. One of my main worries would be that many youngsters aren’t experiencing the richness, depth and joy of learning because of schools feeling they need to achieve some imposed and questionable targets. The stakes from the examination system are so high nowadays that everybody pushes things to the limit of tolerance and that knocks the whole system out of shape.”
The model from Finland, for example, must have merit if their students consistently perform so well in the PISA tests. The challenge for the UK Government is that Finland’s first priority has been equity, not excellence and in making equity the priority, has achieved excellence.
A Way Forward?
Alberta, Canada is widely recognized as having one of the best schooling systems in the world. A recent atricle in Alberta Views highlighted the differences between its system and America’s, noting that the United States is an ‘anti-model’ for how to do school reform. Booi & Couture (2011) comment: “By contrast we can also learn what not to do from reform in the US, whose education system is in decline. Its elements, implemented over the past two decades, are largely ideological: “market-based” reforms (the application of “business insights” to the running of schools); an emphasis on standardization and narrowing of curriculum; extensive use of external standardized assessment; fostering choice and competition among schools, often with school vouchers; making judgements based on test data and closing “failing schools”; encouraging the growth of charter schools (which don’t have teacher unions); “merit pay” and other incentives; faith that “technologically mediated instruction” will reduce costs; an overwhelming “top-down” approach which tells everyone what to do and holds them accountable for doing it.”
In England the path being followed at present is almost identical, which is both depressing and, in my view, harmful. In a recent book, Tucker M (2011) noted that school systems around the world (such as Japan, Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai) that consistently outperform the U.S. on international assessments do things very differently. Tucker states that the characteristics of these successful systems are:
- Funding schools equitably, with additional resources for those serving needy students
- Paying teachers competitively and comparably
- Investing in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense
- Providing time in the school schedule for collaborative planning and on-going professional learning to continually improve instruction
- Organizing a curriculum around problem-solving and critical thinking skill
- Testing students rarely but carefully — with measures that require analysis, communication, and defence of ideas
There is, I would argue, a ‘perfect storm’ brewing. The birth rate is rising (very dramatically in some areas of England); a very significant number of dedicated and experienced Headteachers are due to retire within the next 5 – 10 years; many Headteacher posts have to be re-advertised due to lack of interest; the number of young people applying for teacher training is falling, and the response of the government to all of this is ‘sharper’ accountability through no-notice inspections, a ‘raising of the bar’ on standards and even greater accountability through even more extensive league tables.
We are, I would suggest, in danger of imploding!
I suggest that we need a radically different approach and I challenge our politicians to put aside their political ideologies, to accept what research tells us and to put the needs of our young people first – they deserve it.
Dr Terry Fish
Twynham School, Christchurch, England.
Booi, L & Couture, J C (2011) Testing Testing: What Alberta can learn from Finland about standardization and the role of the teacher, Alberta Views Magazine, Calgary, Canada.
Fullan, M (2011) Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform, Seminar Series 204, Centre for Strategic Education, Victoria, Australia.
Kreiner, S ( 2011) Is the foundation under PISA solid? A critical look at the scaling model
underlying international comparisons of student attainment. Dept. of Biostatistics, University of Copenhagen.
McCrindle, M (2003) Understanding Generation-Y, The Australian Leadership Foundation, NSW, Australia.
OECD PISA (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment, Paris.
OECD (2011) Building a high-quality teaching profession: Lessons from around the world, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris.
OFQUAL (2011) International Comparisons in Senior Secondary Assessment , Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulations, Coventry.
Partenan,A (2011) What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success, The Atlantic.com.
Sahlberg, P (2012) Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York.
Tucker MS (2011) Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading System, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge MA.