The Blog

People Don't Care About Global Education Rankings - But They Should

The triennial PISA results have become one of the great set-piece education events. Pored over by policy-makers, Governments around the world place great importance in the results of these tests - taken by 15-year-olds in reading, science and maths - and in many cases look to mimic the policies of the top performers.

It was, for instance, Germany's PISA "schock" that led to them revamping their curriculum. Far East Asian jurisdictions compete to be top of the rankings. In England, Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, pointed to England's falling position in the rankings as justification, in part, for his reforms of the education system. Singapore is regularly referenced by the Government to underpin its introduction to schools here of "maths mastery", an approach credited for taking it to the top of the maths rankings at age 10, 14 and 15. Poland's improvements have been part of the reason for the introduction of the EBacc here. And the Opposition lapped up the opportunity to criticise the impact of the Government's reforms when England's performance was shown to have barely changed, for better or worse, when the latest results were published last week.

But outside the education world, does anyone really care how England does?

A survey by independent polling company YouGov, commissioned by education consultancy PLMR, suggests not. It found that only 30% of people in the UK place any importance on results in international tests like PISA. And only 5% of adults said they placed "a great deal of importance" on them. Asked whether they thought introducing the teaching methods of the successful East Asian jurisdictions, such as maths mastery, to the curriculum here would make our students more globally competitive, only 39% of all respondents agreed. So there is quite some disconnect between Westminster and the rest of the country (not for the first time, of late).

Perhaps it's not surprising. Most parents, understandably, are much more interested in what is happening on a day-to-day basis within their own child's school. Whether England's PISA score is 520 or 500, whether we have closed the gap on Macao, and whether we have overtaken Finland. Few parents will give two hoots about any of those as long as their child is happy, safe and doing well at their local school. Do they like the teachers? Is there good arts, music and drama provision?

So maybe the question is not whether people do care, but whether they should.

After all, the Government has, over the last six-and-a-half years fundamentally reformed our system, many of the changes based on the education systems of high-ranking jurisdictions, and spending many millions of taxpayers' money in the process. The education children now receive - re-designed GCSEs, a new curriculum and a focus on "academic" subjects, with many more in academies or Free Schools - is copied from overseas. Yes, whether our child gets good exam grades and is happy rightly matters most to parents. But what they are being taught, and the setting in which they are being taught, has often been imported, and holding the Government to account for England's performance in the international tests is therefore right.

For all that, Mr Gove did say, on taking office in 2010, that it would be at least a decade before the success or otherwise of the reforms could be judged.

So the results published in 2019, and then 2022, will be the litmus test. Let's make sure we care by then.