Monthly Archives: May 2015

Our obsession with international comparisons is harming education

The headline in ‘The Times’ on Wednesday 13th May 2015 was “Poor maths is costing Britain trillions”. A new international comparison had graded countries according to mathematics standards and then calculated how much the underperforming students were costing each country. Britain would be, it declared confidently, 2.3 trillion pounds better off if poor attainment in mathematics was addressed.

2.3 Trillion! That sounds like a number plucked out of the air by a primary child trying to come up with a falsely exaggerated large estimation. “How many grains of sand are there on the beach?” Moments of quiet mental computation and then the child blurts out “2.3 trillion” and probably adds “at least” just so you understand the estimation is suitably conservative.

This week I was talking to teachers making the move to join us working in Spain. I asked one of those teachers why they had applied to our school. I was interested to find out what made us stand out from the thousands of international advertisements on the TES Online site. The answer was that he felt from reading our website and the pre-interview materials we send out that the school was interested in the whole child. He commented that our academic standards were high (which they are) but that the school communicates an ethos that this is only a part of the work we do.

There can’t be a greater aim as a school than to be educating the whole child. Providing opportunities for children to participate in creative activities including art, dance and music. Providing opportunities to take risks, fail and then learn. Yes, academic standards in core subjects are important but they are not the only way to guarantee the prosperity of a nation. The same newspaper on the same day reported the highest ever auction price reached for a work of art. 175 million dollars of painting. I wonder if Pablo Picasso would have passed the numeracy test used to compare nations. I wonder, if he had failed, what his predicted contribution to the nation’s finances may have been.

High academic standards are essential. Individualising learning so that students can progress to their own capacity in each subject is essential. Reacting to information about international comparisons, especially when that reaction leads to a “more of the same” solution is not helping achieve higher standards and is not helping young people have a worthwhile education that prepares them for life out of school.

I often face discussions about children who are attaining slightly below average grades in English or mathematics. The first suggestion is often to consider an additional lesson, a support class. Does an additional class of English help a student accelerate their progress? I remain unconvinced. I much prefer to reflect on what we doing with the hours of English lessons that we already deliver and how we can more carefully target that teaching to the needs of the individual child. An approach of “more of the same” isn’t going to help a child that isn’t making the required progress with the system currently in use. What we need to get into the habit of doing is reflecting on how we can change our teaching to match the needs of the children who are not meeting the standards we wish to see.

Last year there was a really interesting international comparison produced by Pearson. Following the PISA test announcing that Britain was sliding down the international rankings for mathematical attainment Pearson produced a comparison of problem solving capabilities. All of a sudden Britain started to look Great again. The student’s ranking leapt.

It is time to stop getting caught up in international rankings. Who is deciding what to measure? Are they aware of how their surveys and rankings are encouraging a “more of the same” solution in schools?

Our obsession with international rankings is damaging the education of the current generation of children. It needs to stop. We need to look at what is taking place in school and make sure that what we are delivering is a world class education that is tailored to the needs of individual children. What works in one country is not necessarily what is going to work in another. What works in one school or even in one class is not necessarily what is going to work in another. What works for one teacher may even be in part dictated by their style, their relationship with the class. This “one size fits all” education that now seems to be striving for global equality in provision is a dangerous path that ignores individuals.

And so what of the 2.3 trillion pounds Britain is losing because of poor mathematics standards? I’m going to watch with interest the problem solving nation that has re-evaluated the need for computing skills and focus my attention on making sure the individual children I work with are making outstanding progress and enjoying their education. When they look back they will know they were well prepared for life; they will understand that they learned how to learn; most importantly, they will have fond memories of the festivals put on at the theatre, the fiestas we celebrated along the way and the school community that welcomed them and made every day an experience worth attending.

Share This:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Leadership in education

What mistakes are we making with primary assessment?

A BBC news article today published statistics from a poll carried out by market research firm Opinion Matters. It highlighted the pressures felt by primary school children in the United Kingdom as they approach their end of Key Stage 2 assessments.
But what exactly are we getting wrong about assessment?

Firstly, let’s take a look at some of the data that made the headlines in today’s article about primary assessment.

In a survey of 1,000 children 8 had smoked on the morning of their Key Stage 2 assessment. I suspect probably the same eight may have smoked on other mornings too and the assessment was not the pressure that caused the child to light up a cigarette.

In the same survey, 37 pupils had eaten chocolate on the morning of the assessments. Quite what relevance this has I’m not sure but the media drive for healthy eating in schools will I’m sure encourage some people to conclude exams make children eat chocolate and are therefore bad.

55% feared that bad results in exams could affect their future.

This then is the message that made the breakfast television news. 55% of children fear that doing badly in exams may affect their future. But surely that is no bad thing that students understand that exam success creates a greater range of opportunities in life and exam failure can restrict life choices? This is a fact. One of the principle purposes in exams is to find out what a student can do; to assess their competence in a given field. This is used eventually to guide young people into making effective career decisions. The more worrying fact about this Opinion Matters poll is that of the 1,000 students asked whether doing badly in exams may affect their future 450 students felt it wouldn’t. Nearly half the students, by the time they reach the end of the primary phase of their education, do not realise that exam success is an important part of future life. These students have had over half of the education they will receive to prepare them for examinations at 16 years old, examinations that will decide their future. Yet, they don’t realise the importance of examination performance. Is this an arrogance on their behalf with regard to the importance of education?

Perhaps instead it reflects the message we send young people about examinations in school. Certainly sharing examination results is important and parents should be able to make value judgements on the effectiveness of the schools available within their area. However, in an era when the primary function of examinations is to judge and grade schools in league tables is it any wander that children are confused about the purpose of examinations? The reason, I would suggest, that student don’t feel examination results are important in their future life is that they have grown up in a culture where the primary purpose of examinations is to judge the effectiveness of schools.

We need to get back to communicating clearly that examination results affect life choices. Passing more examinations at a higher level gives students greater opportunities when they finish school. Students need a folder of certificates when they go out into the workplace. A recognition of what they can do an understand.

We must beware of emotive language in reporting opinion polls that suggest examinations are damaging the health of our young people. Instead of making the examination itself the focus of our criticism we should look to the pressure being put on schools to achieve results, not for the sake of the children in the school, but for the sake of the teachers and managers of the school. The aspect that needs attention here is that children a significant minority of pupils (45%) have a disconnect between doing well in school and doing well in later life. This is the issue that needs addressing and the best way to address it is to revitalise the core purpose of schools, including the examinations that take place in those schools. The core purpose of schools is educating young people. Examinations should be about rewarding young people with a recognition of their skills and understanding. That way everybody will realise by the end of primary education that examinations are important. They may feel nerves on the day. You may have anxieties that need supporting by effective parenting and caring schools but ultimately, examinations matter.

What we need to do in schools is prepare children for examinations with regular testing. Make testing a part of the culture of education. Not national tests that are used as a stick for beating teachers and school but tests that form part of the fabric of the school day. Tests that encourage pupils to understand how to study independently. Tests that celebrate success of students and their learning. Testing is here to stay and today’s news surrounding the anxiety of pupils sitting Key Stage 2 assessments shouldn’t be interpreted as “testing is bad”, more, “the way we test needs improving”.

Share This:

Leave a Comment

Filed under Leadership in education