There is no way to make the latest international education survey anything other than bad news for Britain. Not only do Asia’s 15-year-olds continue to accelerate away at the top of the table – the top five runs Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea – but the UK’s lacklustre 26th place is unchanged from the last Pisa ranking put together in 2009.
Cue much soul-searching and political finger-pointing. But what matters, as any half-decent teacher knows, is less the mistake itself than what can be learned from it. And there is certainly much food for thought among the global comparisons. In Peru, for example, the schoolchildren are among the OECD’s happiest; the only downside is that they receive the worst education. Meanwhile, in South Korea, the students are not all that cheerful, but they perform well.
And what of Britain’s poor performance? It is true that there are broad cultural factors at work here. In much of Asia, education is held to be the primary route to success. Not in the UK. Indeed, the question of how to raise the aspirations of children from more disadvantaged groups – particularly the white working class – is one not yet satisfactorily answered.
But it is not enough to blame sweeping social forces and move on. Rather, we must look for specifics. With such compelling evidence that British children are falling behind, even as domestic scores have been improving, the reality of GCSE grade inflation is now unarguable. It is also clear that more money is no guarantee of success; the UK spends more than the average on education, with mediocre results. And it is notable that in world-leading Shanghai performance-related pay for teachers is the norm, in particular in deprived areas.
The shadow Education Secretary claims our national flatlining as proof that the Government’s controversial reforms are more light than heat. Not so. From variable pay to better teacher-training to a tougher curriculum, Michael Gove’s shake-up of Britain’s schools has much to recommend it. It has not yet had time to take effect, however. The verdict will be in the next Pisa league, in 2015.