Thursday, 10 May 2012

Improving school standards

This week it was reported that China, specifically Shanghai, performed best in all areas of the 2009 PISA survey of school attainment (see BBC website, OECD website). PISA is the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment, and every three years it examines the performance of 15 year old school pupils in reading, mathematics and science. For PISA 2009, over half a million school pupils were surveyed, in over 70 countries and territories. The PISA test results are widely regarded as the most objective and reliable tool for assessing a country's educational standards, both absolutely and relative to others. Viewed over time, it shows how countries rise and fall in the world educational league tables.

Now, the results for Shanghai were actually published back in 2009, but the Chinese government has been reluctant to allow publication of results from other part of the country. Apparently, though, other parts of China also performed very strongly in PISA tests, even in areas where general living conditions remain quite poor. Poor provinces came out well, and it also turned out that differences in attainment between rich and poor pupils were surprisingly small. Reportedly, an underlying factor in these results is the idea of education as the key to social mobility and success, very deeply rooted in Chinese culture more or less regardless of social background.

Two points about the Shanghai results are of particular interest. First, the city has steadily advanced up the league table over the past 15 years, presumably the result of deliberate policies to foster high educational standards. Second, as the best performing region in the world, Shanghai's performance is now substantially above the OECD average performance, placing Shanghai in a strong position to do well economically in future years - assuming we accept the idea that a strong education system often underpins future economic growth.

In contrast, the UK's performance stands at around the OECD average in reading and mathematics, a little above the OECD average for science. This is not terrible, but it's not brilliant either. If the UK wishes to be a prosperous and competitive economy in 10 or 20 years time, it would certainly help if we could raise educational standards in our schools. In part this is a matter for government policy, and much is already being done in that area; in part, though, it is also a matter for popular culture. In other words, we somehow need to get across to people the basic idea that education is the key both to individual success and achievement, and to the UK's wider economic success.

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