PISA tests are occasionally in the news and well known amongst teachers. They rank the 65 OECD countries according to results in standardised maths, science and reading tests. Here in the UK, we ranked significantly higher in reading than in maths (23rd in reading, 26th in maths). Incidentally, our ranking in both is dropping, described even by government as “at best, stagnating, at worst, declining.”
There is a perception that it is the Far East that dominates the top of PISA rankings. Whilst it is true that the top 5 are the likes of Shanghai, South Korea and Japan, the top 10 contain such nations as Poland, the Netherlands and Finland.
Similarly, the excuse that language differences inflate these differences can be quashed by the fact that English-speaking, economically-equivalent countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada all perform significantly higher than the UK.
There is also little to support the myth that educational systems take generations to change: Ireland ranked 32nd and 21st in maths and reading respectively in 2008, but had improved these to 20th and 6th by 2012.
I do support the idea that cultural differences affect rankings. Talking to a few teachers who participated in the Shanghai exchange, they overwhelmingly felt that whilst teaching played a small part in the success, other factors (such as the one-child policy, the length of the school day, the emphasis placed on academic success within families, the narrow curriculum) played a far bigger part. But this is hardly a surprise, and begs the question: why did we exchange maths teachers with Shanghai when perhaps the answers were closer to home – Ireland, or Finland, perhaps?
Given the fact that the Shanghai exchange has led to almost no visible reform in teaching practice in the UK it is perhaps a fair conclusion that our teachers were doing a decent job already: what needs to change is our attitude towards learning as a nation. The issue is cultural. Whilst there are improvements that could be made in schools, I am sure that when we as a nation take the time to celebrate academic achievement more, and to avoid phrases such as “I can’t help him, I was always rubbish at maths” and “I never read as a child either”, progress will be made. Kids that don’t read regularly usually have parents who don’t either, and kids who disengage from maths usually have parents who are too scared to help properly with homework. But this can change – and needs to – although how is a whole other question.