Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the results of its global PISA tests, taken by over 500,000 students across 65 countries to measure the successes of the world’s schools. And the results? Britain’s education system is supposedly stalling compared to its peers, languishing at the back of the class behind countries such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. The verdict, it would seem, is clear: must try harder.

In response, public figures could hardly chastise our teachers enough, pinning the British education system to the floor like the overweight asthmatic kid on the first day of school, who has that skin condition that no one wants to be near. Salivating at the mouth, people queued up to give British teachers a wedgie and take their lunch money, with Education Minister Michael Gove fawning that test results were “at best, stagnant” compared to our European and Asian counterparts.

A Particularly Astute Daily Mail Commenter.

A particularly astute Daily Mail commenter.

Similarly, the Daily Mail’s website was awash with its usual knowledgeable summation of affairs. The charmingly named user “givemebackmycountry” helpfully explained Britain’s position by noting that “Polish and Estonian teachers do not have the problem of teaching English kids Polish or Estonian before they can teach their own kids”. Maybe, “we need to concentrate on our own people”, mused our surely Nobel Prize-winning commentator, to the agreement of over six hundred others- disappointingly, the highest voted comment on the entire article. And, as always, middle aged armchair pundits emerged in droves to lament that things were clearly better in their day, when one could simply beat students into achieving high grades, suggesting that we should all just return to living in caves whilst flinging excrement at one another.

Clearly then, British teachers just don’t work hard enough to inspire our little urchins. As is evident from the mob’s ruling, all the problems exposed by the tests can be traced back to the classroom. Failing grades? Teachers. Poor literacy? Teachers. That nasty patch of damp that your landlord won’t get rid of? Yeah, I bet that was a teacher too.

“It is impossible to construct a test that in a fair and objective way can be used across countries and cultures to assess the quality of learning.”

Svein Sjøberg, University of Oslo
However, one should not be so quick to condemn the British education system. The PISA tests have been marred in controversy from their inception, and many critics claim that they are a severely flawed and inaccurate method for comparing the global attainment of schools. Leading the way is Dr. Svein Sjøberg of the University of Oslo, who highlights how the test’s translation between different languages can drastically alter a question’s meaning and difficulty, thus producing testing that is inconsistent between different countries; “it is impossible to construct a test that in a fair and objective way can be used across countries and cultures to assess the quality of learning”, Sjøberg claims. Equally, accusations that certain countries have been hand-picking high achieving pupils for the test have been rife, suggesting that some scores may not be entirely representative of the average pupil. In this sense, one should not take the word of the OECD as law.

Naughty boys in nasty schools, headmasters breaking all the rules.

Naughty boys in nasty schools, headmasters breaking all the rules.

Moreover, are these league tables even useful? One could argue that such black and white, statistical testing only reflects quantitative data, such as grades and scores, and largely neglects qualitative achievements that cannot be measured by simple numerical or verbal assessments. Facets such as creativity and, more importantly, social development, are entirely overlooked by the tests, despite being crucial to produce a well rounded individual. Therefore, the OECD does not do justice to British schools, as its oversimplified league tables ignore many teachers’ successes. One can turn to other evidence to prove this phenomenon- Britain, for example, possesses the ninth most Nobel laureates per head in the world, demonstrating that our education system is not the deteriorating pile of rubble that critics would suggest.

“In May 2013 French news reported that two children had killed themselves after failing to complete their homework on time, illustrating the staggering pressure faced by Chinese students.”

And what of the supposed successors- should we seek to emulate schools in China, who claimed the top spot for literacy, numeracy and science? I would firmly argue, no. Whilst one cannot fault such systems on paper, it is clear that the rigorous schooling akin to that of China can place unhealthy stress and pressure on students. With an emphasis on repetitive rote learning, students regularly spend around ten hours a day in school, and eye massages have been scheduled into the Chinese timetable due to students’ sheer physical exertion. Unsurprisingly, China’s suicide rate among teenagers is rising, and in May 2013 French news reported that two children had killed themselves after failing to complete their homework on time, illustrating the staggering pressure faced by Chinese students.

Therefore, one should not dismiss the British education system as failing from the OECD’s recent findings. The forceful rote learning of many higher-ranked nations is evidently far from perfect as, whilst it may provide a student with a wealth of facts and figures, there is a great difference between “knowing” and “understanding”. Accordingly, the British education system allows students to enjoy a degree of creativity and critical thinking skills, and the encouragingly growing presence of overseas students in British schools and universities must surely serve as testament to this fact. Evidently, British schools remain the home of inspiration, and polemics against the teachers will only impede this progress.

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