PISA league tables and the cuts – on the road to nowhere

In 2011, Michael Gove declared Andreas Schleicher, head of education research at the OECD to be “the most important man in English education”.  The PISA data published every three years is all our politicians need to determine policy. At over 400 pages long, the report is almost biblical in allowing people to chose the parts that support their beliefs.

For politicians, the key paragraph in the 2016 PISA report states that science teachers’ qualifications do not impact on science attainment but the method of teaching does. This single paragraph explains why politicians are happy that headteachers are complaining so loudly about cuts. The evidence to last week’s Commons Select Committee was about schools making key staff redundant. If you are politician, large scale school redundancies will be evidence that expensive teachers whose qualifications apparently make no difference are being replaced with cheaper unqualified staff and apprentices who can follow the “how to teach” script. If you are a politician, you will be pleased.
The only factor that could dent a politician’s happiness would be loss of the parental vote in key constituencies. Despite the policy constraints of a small majority, the government are riding high in the opinion polls and appear to have little to fear from headteachers setting out the impact of the cuts in letters to parents. As a society, we are seeing patients on hospital trollies, reading about record prison suicides, walking past homeless people in shop doorways and collectively shrugging our shoulders. I think we can predict that school redundancies and broken PE equipment will receive the same response. It feels as if, in a post-public service society, only a rise in mortgage rates will impact on a government’s popularity. Having enjoyed the benefits of well funded public institutions and home ownership, my generation seem happy to deny those things to our children. 

The problem with using Schleicher and his PISA tables as the sole rationale for the current policy is that the OECD is an economic organisation. Economically, the basic skills tested by PISA are very important to both humans accessing life experiences and also to companies’ profits. Educationally, basic skills rightly receive a significant focus but there is far more to human development. By cutting subjects and expert staff, we are in grave of danger of failing a large proportion of children who will be condemned to have little part in the economic, cultural and political life of society and all because we want to be higher up the global education league tables. Our society and our education system cannot be Singapore or South Korea because the variables are too great. The economics of PISA, focused on company productivity, will increase inequality not social mobility in the UK and will create a far larger underclass. We have been here before in our history and it really wasn’t that great. 

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