Climbing PISA tables & raising standards aren’t the same – expert evidence in reaction to new Conservative education targets

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has announced new targets in literacy and numeracy.  “We will expect every pupil by the age of 11 to know their times tables off by heart, to perform long division and complex multiplication and to be able to read a novel,” she said.

The Conservatives are also setting a new  target for England’s performance in international education league tables to be the best in Europe in English and maths by 2020, and to be among the top five countries in the world. 

At present the UK ranks 23rd for reading, and 26th for maths in the PISA league tables for pupils aged 15 — below Estonia, Slovenia and Poland.

In an article in the Sunday Times (1st February 2015), Nicky Morgan said the last Labour government had “failed an entire generation” by promoting “low-quality qualifications employers didn’t value” and leaving behind a system “in which every third child left primary school unable to read, write or add up properly.”

Here experts give their reaction on what robust evidence there is to support the setting of such targets and, in particular, the evidence on whether achieving a higher position in the PISA ranks, for example, means a nation is delivering better pupil outcomes.

Professor Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham said:

“We do not show up well in PISA, but this is in part because, unlike some of the leading countries, we do not practice the tests and schools and pupils individually gain little by doing well in them. We could both prepare better and reward outcomes, and this would push up the scores. But it would not signify an improvement in the education system, only that we were handling the tests better.

Real improvements will show through in PISA scores over time, but unrealistically high targets will lead to a concentration on the tests that will have a distorting effect.”

And on the maths targets, Jeremy Hodgen, Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Nottingham, said:

“In the only international survey of primary mathematics, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), England compares well to most countries scoring well above the international mean in 2011.

In fact, only six educational systems have scores that are statistically above that of England and at primary, England has made the greatest increase of any country since TIMSS started in 1995.

Whilst there is certainly room for improvement in primary maths, the international evidence indicates that England’s relatively high performance at primary is not sustained at age 14. This suggests that the focus for reform should be at Key Stage 3 rather than primary.

There is no evidence to suggest that long division is important to children’s mathematical development in today’s world.

There is evidence that a good understanding of multiplication and division is crucial. However, around two thirds of 14 year olds in England struggle to grasp even the simplest ratio problems.

Research suggests that, rather than focusing on long division, we should teach the application and interpretation of multiplication and division alongside mental arithmetic and estimation as these are the skills they will all need for work and further study.”

And, commenting on new education targets set by the Conservatives, Dr John Jerrim of UCL Institute of Education said:

“The Conservatives have set a target of teaching the top 5 in PISA by 2020. This is very ambitious. For instance, in mathematics, it requires each child to achieve around an extra year and a half additional progress within less than a decade. No other country in the history of PISA has achieved this before”.​

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