With the UK education landscape seemingly set for major change…..it is interesting to see what the latest statistics are telling us about the performance of the UK’s education system compared with other developed countries and the particular challenges the UK faces.
This month’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ‘Education at a Glance’ report, compares the performance of OECD countries’ education systems. “High-performing countries” achieve high levels of equity for all students regardless of socio-economic background and high levels of achievement with a maximum 5% variation in performance between schools.
Let’s tackle equity equity first. The UK has higher than average levels of social segregration (with 80% of children from immigrant families taught in disadvantaged schools alongside young people from similar backgrounds), alongside higher than average upward social mobility (41% of 25 to 34-year-olds in the UK achieve a higher level of education than their parents, above the OECD average). The UK also has a problem of young people who are not in education, employment or training (so-called NEETs) at levels well above the OECD average.
In terms of achievement, the OECD’s 2010 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which looks not just at what students know but also how good they are at applying what they have learned, shows a stagnant UK’s education system. The UK is ranked 25th out of 65 for reading, 28th for maths and 16th for science. In 2006, when 57 countries were included in the study, it was placed 17th, 24th and 14th respectively. Spending does not guarantee success. Only 7 countries have a higher per capita spend on education than the UK. The amount spent on education seems less important than how those resources are used, with successful economies tending to focus on teacher quality over class size. The Sutton Trust report ‘Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK’ has estimated that bringing the lowest-performing 10% of teachers (40,000 teachers) in the UK up to the average would greatly boost attainment levels and the UK’s overall international ranking.
Which countries can the UK learn from? China, Korea and Finland provide excellence for all students from all backgrounds. Finland is singled out as placing top priority on teaching quality. It also has a different system of monitoring, league tables and inspection from the UK.
What wider advice can we draw from looking at education systems across so many countries? In his Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century report, statistician Dr Andreas Schelicher, OECD’s special adviser on education looked at cross-country comparisons using PISA data and found that ” relative pay-levels of teachers are related to average student performance in education systems, after other system-level factors have been accounted for.” But, again, it’s not all about money. “The kind of teaching needed today requires teachers to be high-level knowledge workers who constantly advance their own professional knowledge as well as that of their profession. But people who see themselves as knowledge workers are not attracted by schools organized like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets in a bureaucratic command-and-control environment.” He advises that teachers everywhere should be paid well and (his comments were not directed at any particular country) be given more freedom to just get on with teaching!.