The benchmark for excellence: Can British schools catch up with other nations?

Standards in British schools have slipped dramatically behind those of other nations in the last decade, says Michael Gove. But analysing the reasons provides an exciting opportunity to catch up fast

The most important man in English education doesn’t teach a single English child, wasn’t elected by a single English voter and won’t spend more than a single week in England this year. But Andreas Schleicher deserves the thanks of everyone in England who wants to see our children fulfil the limit of their potential.

A German mathematician with the sort of job title that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy – head of the indicators and analysis division (directorate for education) at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – Andreas Schleicher might seem like the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat. But in truth he’s the father of more revolutions than any German since Karl Marx.

Because Andreas is responsible for collating the data that shows which nations have the best-performing education systems, analysing that data to determine what makes those systems so successful and then publishing the findings in a way which anyone can absorb. And many have.

Since Andreas and the OECD established the Pisa league tables of international educational achievement as benchmarks of excellence in schooling, certain common features have been consistently identified among the top-performing nations. And, increasingly, those features have been introduced into the education systems of countries with poorer performances. Which, in turn, have seen their own performance improve.

Indeed, many of those nations which are themselves top performers – such as Singapore and Hong Kong – eagerly analyse what their own principal competitors are doing and how they perform in Pisa, with a view to implementing further changes to maintain their competitive edge.

No nation that is serious about ensuring its children enjoy an education that equips them to compete fairly with students from other countries can afford to ignore the insights Andreas’s work generates. Ignoring what Pisa tells us in education would be as foolish as dismissing what control trials tell us in medicine. We would by flying in the face of the best evidence we have of what works.

And just as the evidence Andreas has gathered has influenced education reformers in Asia, in Scandinavia and in North America, so it is influencing the Government here. Not least because the evidence Andreas has gathered shows that we are falling further and further behind other nations. In the last ten years we have plummeted in the world rankings from 4th to 16th for science, 7th to 25th for literacy and 8th to 28th for maths. While our new young teachers are better than ever and our children are working harder than ever, the rate at which other countries are improving their education systems leaves us straggling behind.

Its the melancholy nature of our decline, and the energy with which other countries are implementing the lessons of the most successful education nations, that is behind the Coalition Government’s drive to modernise our own schools system. Every child in England risks being left behind unless we catch up with the world’s top performers. Our schools White Paper – The Importance of Teaching was deliberately designed to bring together policies that have worked in other, high-performing nations. It was accompanied by a detailed evidence paper, The Case for Change, and drew on insights generated by successive Pisa results tables. The White Paper’s policies are our priorities for 2011.

We know that the most successful education nations recruit the best possible people into teaching and provide them with high-quality training and professional development. Which is why we are expanding the principal elite route into teaching, Teach First, raising the bar on entry into the profession, providing support for top graduates in maths and science to enter teaching, establishing a new generation of teaching schools on the model of teaching hospitals, to spread best practice, and investing in more national and local leaders of education – superb heads who lend their skills to raise standards in weaker schools.

The principle of collaboration between stronger and weaker schools, with those in a position to help given the freedom to make a difference, lies at the heart of our academy programme. And 2011 will see a change in the programme, with more than 400 academies now open as of this week. These schools exemplify many of the virtues which are enjoyed by schools in the best-performing education systems. The greater the amount of autonomy at school level, with principals free to vary curricula, staffing and internal organisation, the greater the potential for all-round improvement and the greater the opportunity for the system to move from good to great.

But while greater autonomy can drive innovation and spark improvement all round,Pisa tells us that the greatest benefits for pupils are secured in a system which also has robust accountability and marked examinations at crucial stages, that allow fair comparisons to be made. It’s because it is so important that those comparisons are fair that we are reforming performance tables, to place more emphasis on the value schools add as well as the raw results they secure.

When the performance tables are published next week they will help reveal where the real areas of weakness are. And that will present the Government with an unambiguous challenge to tackle under-performance where it is most deeply entrenched. Because the final lesson Pisa tells us is that the best performing education systems all have a much higher level of equity than the UK. In other words, they are more likely to be excellent overall when they work on the assumption that all children are capable of excellence. It is that vision which drives us. We believe that we can educate progressively more of our children to an ever higher standard and thus achieve the levels of fairness and social mobility that have long eluded us. The evidence shows us it can be done. And the challenge in 2011 is to follow the path which the evidence, so patiently acquired by Andreas and his team, tells us can liberate our children.