Leading Article: Put poor scores into perspective

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The Independent Online

There is more bad news for the Government in the international league table of reading and maths standards published this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Last week's leaked statistics on the performance of our 15-year-olds in science, which showed the UK tumbling down the league table, set the gloomy scene.

The latest figures for maths and reading show we have dropped out of the top 10 nations for both subjects. Countries doing well include Finland, South Korea and Canada. In 2000, the UK was placed eighth in maths and seventh in reading; but in the new table, we are 24th for maths and 17th for reading. Our performance is now average for OECD countries, rather than above average. That provides a little crumb of comfort for our harassed politicians, but not much.

Gordon Brown has really been hoisted with a petard created for him by Tony Blair. In the 2000 tables we did well and Blair could not resist claiming credit for the UK performance. He said we were on our way to having a world-class education system and it was due to his Government's reforms. That was not a sensible thing to do because his Government had done nothing to affect the performance of 15-year-olds and had been concentrating on primary school children. It was setting us up for a fall. In 2003 the results of UK children plummeted but the Government managed to have them kept out of the league tables on the grounds that the sample was too small. Our exclusion from these results compounded our problems and made our position this time look even worse.

The fact is that the experts believe there are reasons why we don't do brilliantly. For a start, teachers in the UK do not teach to these tests, as they do with GCSEs and A-levels. If they did, there is little doubt we would begin to improve. But we would then find that the results were becoming detached from the education we wanted to put in place. It is easy to read too much into these scores. Such international comparisons are a valuable research tool, but if we start to celebrate when we do well and despair when we do badly, we are missing the point of them.