Is Andreas Schleicher still on Gove’s Christmas Card list?

In January 2011, Michael Gove famously described Andreas Schleicher of the OECD and mastermind of the PISA tests as “the most important man in English education”. It’s just possible now that after the dust has settled on the latest round that Schleicher will be off the Secretary of State’s Christmas card list.

First of all, Schleicher told the TES that “The UK demonstrates that increasing school choice and competition does not improve standards”. Not exactly what Gove wants to hear wedded as he is to the market as the magic bullet that will sort out all our problems.

It seems that OECD has some trouble with this finding as they go on to say that “My organisation [the OECD] is very strong on choice, enabling citizens to make choices, and you would expect that systems with greater choice would come out better”. But they have the honesty to say that the correlation just isn’t there – “Competition alone is not a predictor for better outcomes. The UK is a good example – it has a highly competitive school system but it is still only an average performer.” And they go on to say quite specifically that there is no significant difference between public and charter or private schools once you adjust for pupils’ backgrounds.

This isn’t the only salvo that PISA fires at the prevailing orthodoxy in England. It describes the aims of its tests as follows:

“The assessment does not just ascertain whether students can reproduce what they have learned; it also examines how well they can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply that knowledge in unfamiliar settings, both in and outside of school. This approach reflects the fact that modern societies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.”

As we know, this is not Gove’s view of the curriculum or of assessment. For him “reproducing what they have learned” is almost the be all and end all – now to be enshrined in his new GCSEs and A levels where everything hangs on a test of memory on just one day. There is nothing in his world about the application of knowledge or the development of skills and capability. As parents at the primary schools run in the style of E D Hirsch by junior minister Lord Nash’s chain complain “children as young as five are subjected to regular tests on their ability to retain facts.”

PISA also takes aim at selection – as indeed it has done for some time. Everyone agrees that trying to break the link between socio-economic background and school performance is a key part of a high performing system. But OECD is clear that if you want to do that, you need to avoid early selection – something that applies both to overt selection by exams and to covert selection as practiced in England by too many schools. Fundamental to the achievements of the most successful systems is the belief that all young people have potential and that hard work can often trump inbred talent (whatever Boris may think!). Early selection is clearly a way of putting a cap on the achievement of too many young people.

It’s clear too that how teachers work matter. Giving teachers the freedom to plan their curriculum and its assessment is important. But so is collaboration amongst teachers and amongst schools. While other countries are raising their expectations in terms both of initial training and continuing professional development, we’re doing the exact opposite, opening the door to unqualified teachers, setting teacher against teacher through performance related pay and breaking up the infra-structure that supported in-service training.

It may well be that there are many flaws in the PISA process. The simplistic league tables are no doubt exactly that. But we should nevertheless take notice of the fact that PISA is sending us the message that much of the current Anglo-American consensus is taking us in exactly the wrong direction. As Pasi Sahlberg has commented: “My personal takeaway from the PISA 2012 study is that it proves that the fashionable Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is built on wrong premises. Countries that want to be higher on the PISA tables should understand what it truly takes to get there.”


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