Several years ago, before many in this country had heard of it, I used to bang on to friends about PISA. It came onto my radar after I helped run a German exchange visit in 2004 and found it to be the 'hot topic' of debate amongst German teachers. The 2000 PISA statistics had been a big story in Germany because they had come 23rd out of the 28 OECD countries who had participated that year (England came 8th, but you wouldn't have heard about that because it was good news). In the 2009 figures, Germany have scored a statistically significantly increase in their performance. I'm sure that the German authorities will be pleased to see an improvement which is worthy of note, although they may temper that with some concern that they still rank only 18th internationally - if they are still paying attention.
In his hilariously pompous speech to the Education World Forum this month, Michael Gove made reference to this German experience and again (just as he, David Cameron and Nick Clegg do in their forewords to the 2010 White Paper) cited PISA as evidence that education standards in the UK have 'plummeted' since 2000. 'These are facts from which we cannot hide' he trumpeted.
FACT, Mr Gove? Facts? David Brent of 'The Office', Dickens' pedagogical terrorist Thomas Gradgrind and a litany of promising political careers have all come unstuck through a careless over reliance upon that outwardly 'rigorous' but damnably slippery concept. The statistical fact is that the OECD have been very clear that 'no trend comparisons are possible' when comparing UK PISA data from 2000 with that of 2006 or 2009. Whilst the (statistically comparable) 2006 and 2009 data does show a small decline, the OECD analysis table does not classify that decline as being statistically significant. So the fact appears to be that the premise upon which the White Paper is introduced by the Prime Minister and his Deputy are somewhat questionable to say the least.
Whilst all this is very important to point out given the radical nature of the changes Mr Gove seeks to justify as a solution, there is a very obvious and important trap in highlighting this statistical, and politically motivated dishonesty. The fact is that, however spun, nobody involved in education should be pleased with, or satisfied by, an international study which places us 23rd in the OECD in terms of attainment. Gove is correct in asserting that PISA shows us that standards need to be improved. He is not factually correct in asserting that PISA shows us that standards significantly declined under Labour.
So this presents a challenge to those of us who don't share or recognise Gove's narrative of state school failure and decline. We must place a relentless focus on standards at the heart of any opposition to Conservative curriculum or school reforms. We must accept the essential inclusion of core knowledge within any planned curriculum whilst defending passionately the importance of skills and contemporary relevance (I don't shy away from that word, it does matter) to the content and focus of our courses and qualifications. We must not allow the right to dominate the territory of academic ambition and rigour, portraying the comprehensive ideal as lying in opposition to all that is meritocratic and aspirational. Quite the opposite. We must fight reductive, discredited and old fashioned ideas with broad and brave counter proposals. Labour must enter the next election with a clear and reforming policy agenda designed to strengthen the comprehensive and inclusive ideals of open access schooling, combined with a new approach to qualifications and assessment which will restore the public faith in our examinations system. I am convinced that the public will see more merit in such an approach when contrasted with the dour, mean and tedious agenda on offer from the present government, that which Simon Jenkins this week brilliantly dubbed the 'Govian Paradox' of 'a dictatorship of Liberty, a free market in doing what we are told'.
Want to set schools free but want to tell them which battles and books to teach? Want to equip young people to compete in a changing global economy but primarily want them to understand our 'island story'? Want schools to do more with less whilst opening new schools in areas with surplus places? It's the Govian knot - anything but a PISA cake!