Letters: Sceptical about Pisa rankings

These letters were published in the 4 December edition of the Independent

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The Pisa results claim to “measure” educational standards across a very wide range of cultural contexts. However there are severe limitations to the programme.These include concerns over the Rasch model Pisa uses as well as major issues over cultural bias, over what constitutes “quality” and “high” performance and over limitations of coverage.

There is an interesting parallel between the media focus on Pisa’s so-called “objective” measure of educational performance and the attention given by academic circles in the 19th century to a similar initiative. Phrenological studies attempted to correlate precise head measurements with the mental faculties of races and peoples in different countries. Despite the accuracy of the measurements (to the nearest millimetre) the findings were later shown to be spurious and the supposed “science” totally discredited.

A hundred and fifty years on, Pisa-type measurement could well  be a form of international educational phrenology. Its findings, and in particular its rankings, need to be treated with a considerable degree of scepticism.

Professor Colin Richards, Spark Bridge,  Cumbria


England’s place in the international education table is in the middle and appears to be anchored there. Many years ago, as a trainee teacher, I, along with all others at the time, was indoctrinated to tell children that learning was fun. It was called the Play Way, and our educational system has never recovered from it.

Early learning may indeed be fun, but later on it needs more hard work than the children have been used to, and many give up. Until they are taught that the result of education is the result of the effort put into it, there will be no improvement in our standing.

Bill Fletcher, Cirencester, Gloucestershire


OECD, Pisa, Timms – it seems that everyone in education is a slave to comparative international testing.

So what can we learn from it? In Finland there is a fully comprehensive system, without streaming or selection. Schools are not inspected with an Ofsted blunt club, national tests are first taken at the age of 16, teachers are respected, and books and writers are revered.

By way of contrast, in Japan children work long hours, rote learning is commonplace, it is highly competitive, child depression and even suicide are high by international standards and there is the phenomenon of “hikkomori” where thousands of teenagers withdraw from all social contact.

USA and the UK bottom of the pile? In their book The Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Pickett were able to draw a direct correlation between countries with wide disparities in wealth and low educational achievement. In both countries this is exacerbated by the fact that large numbers of students are privately educated, limiting social mobility.

The other factor is the grim testing regimes. In England children endure a battery of tests; by the age of 18 they will have completed over 100.

So, international tests – you pays your money you takes your choices. Doubtless Gove will be ordering more gruel, more testing, more of the 3 Rs, more blame heaped on teachers. Proponents of blood-letting, when confronted with the deaths of their patients, had the perfect reply: “We should have bled earlier and in greater quantities.”

Richard Knights, Liverpool


Coming out to face press persecution

I wish I could share Owen Jones’s cheery take on Tom Daley’s “coming out” announcement (3 December). I have a less benign view of how Daley will be treated by the homophobic newspapers we all know so well. 

I have no doubt that the second Daley made his relationship public the editors of at least two newspapers committed people and funds to a thorough search of the metaphoric dustbins of Daley, his family, friends – anyone – in the hope they will dig up some dirt to besmirch the athlete. 

And they will not give up.

Mike Abbott, London W4


Ian Burrell (“How long will it be before we’re looking back to the golden days of the Press Complaints Commission”, 18 November) quite rightly says that “The new [press regulatory] body [Ipso] faces an enormous credibility battle.” But he suggests Ipso might be able to address this if it appoints the right individuals to the Ipso board, and if it can successfully run investigations/sanctions.

Yet, as our report published last month shows, the individuals on Ipso’s board will be highly constrained by the new industry funding body – the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). The RFC will have wide-ranging powers which go far beyond those normally possessed by a funding body, including over appointments, regulations, investigations, sanctions, arbitration, and the standards code. On this basis it is hard to see how Ipso could ever appear independent in the eyes of the public.

Equally, since under Ipso no newspaper will be obliged to offer low-cost arbitration, there are bound to be cases in future in which people – like Christopher Jefferies – are falsely accused, but can’t gain access to affordable legal redress.

There are other significant areas where Ipso falls down too, such as its complaints process, which further emphasise how hard it will be for this industry regulator to seem credible.

Martin Moore, Director, Media Standards Trust, London WC2


Cut-price cigarettes lure the young

One of the arguments against plain packaging for cigarettes is that the black market for cigarettes will increase. My understanding from talking with young people is that they would never consider buying full-price cigarettes, preferring the cheaper alternatives readily available on the black market.

Is it not time that all cigarettes sold in this country have “UK tax paid” printed on each cigarette. Anyone found smoking an unprinted cigarette would be expected to have a receipt showing where and when they had bought it.

This would reduce the black-market availability of cheap cigarettes, with no adverse impact on tax revenues, and further reduce the appeal of smoking to young people.

Steve Horsfield, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire


HS2: Read that big document

I am as fond of a dig at the expense of the Government as anyone, and I am passionately opposed to HS2. But credit should be given where it is due.

It is easy to mock a 50,000-page document (Donald Macintyre, 26 November) but hear this. The most relevant sections for my area were delivered to my local library in hard copy before 11am on the day of publication, and the rest arrived on a memory stick. The part I was particularly interested in was easy to find and readable. It provides the detailed information about numbers of heavy vehicles, access roads and timings that we have been clamouring for. That is no small achievement.

We should be encouraging people to  read the parts that concern them and take an active  part in the consultation process. It is not over yet.

Jane Penson, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire


David Cameron has told the Chinese leadership that he would welcome investment by Beijing in Britain’s HS2 rail link.

How very Tory. They scapegoat foreign workers. They welcome foreign money.

Sasha Simic, London N16


Brunel’s historic train shed

Referring to the article “Brunel’s engine shed now open for business” (3 December), while it is gratifying to read that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original Bristol station is to be put to such an enterprising purpose – far better than its one-time use as a car park – it should be pointed out that the structure is more properly called a train shed, not an engine shed. The original engine shed, where locomotives were housed and maintained, was situated just outside the terminus.

Christopher McDermott, Crewe, Cheshire


Baby snatched from the womb

I felt quite sick when I read about the baby snatched from her Italian mother’s womb in this country. I feel ashamed that we could do this. Could we not have provided this woman with complete support for her and her baby until she was well again?

Please extend your campaigning against this secrecy.

Vivienne Cox, London W4


Incoming deliveries

Amazon are clearly late adopters. Santa has been using drone deliveries for years.

How else could he get the job done?

Patrick Walsh, Eastbourne East Sussex