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.

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