Socialist Worker

Tories talk up a crisis in education then try to make it worse

Michael Gove thinks an international survey shows a need for exams—but that’s not what it says at all, writes Ralph Tebbutt

Issue No. 2383

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Gove wants more and more tests


The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued the latest of its three year reports on education earlier this month. 

Known as Pisa—Programme for International Assessment—this report analyses the performance of 15 year old school students in mathematics, reading and science in 65 countries. 

The UK failed to make the top 20. Tory education secretary Michael Gove claimed that UK performance in these tests had been at best stagnant, at worst declining, since the 1990s.

Before we go further down the road of returning to the old “talk and chalk” formal education we need to consider these figures. As any teacher knows, it is extremely difficult to compare progress between pupils within an individual class—never mind between schools. 

To make a comparison across nations is extremely difficult. The OECD website has a mass of data with graphs to attempt to overcome all the factors that affect such comparisons. These include test score gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils and the relative numbers of such pupils. 

It also includes the trends in scores by different social classes and the fact that pupils in different countries respond differently to international tests. Then there are different cultures and attitudes to education in general and to tests in particular.

Several interesting facts emerge. 

Finland, the most consistent high performer over the three reports, has the least selective system. It has the most comprehensive system in the world and no inspectors. It also has no examinations before 18 years old and a national curriculum that is only broadly defined. 

Yet Sweden has plummeted down the score tables since the introduction of free schools.

The focus of the 2012 Pisa  test in mathematics was on the capacity of the individual to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. This does not suggest that the best way to teach mathematics is through the formal methods that Gove and his allies advocate. 

It is also very worrying how the OECD set out the six levels of difficulty that they use to assess the pupils being tested. They state that “low proficiency” pupils will be unable to tackle the top five levels of difficulty and are probably unable to tackle even the lowest level. 

What type of teacher would set pupils a test when they are unable to answer any of the questions?

The report also states that the educational experience of pupils throughout the world is very different. Yet it also states that all pupils will be competing for the same types of jobs and therefore it is necessary to carry out this type of comparison. 

Clearly their view is that education is concerned with preparing cogs to go into the machine of business. There is far more to education than equipping students for work. 

Of far more importance is the development of individual personalities to enable young people to become creative and whole. Then they can participate in all aspects of society with a will and a mind to bring about those changes that will benefit all of us.

The OECD has its agenda— it’s not the same as ours. We have to challenge these distortions and press for a fully comprehensive system of education that meets the needs of all our young people.

 


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