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Educational Attainment: International Rankings

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Kingdom’s performance in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

My Lords, the UK’s 15 year-olds performed above the OECD average in science and reading, and at the average in maths. This is a credit to the hard work of teachers and pupils. Obviously, however, we will struggle to maintain our position as the fifth-largest economy in the world if we do not raise our game; hence our extensive reforms. The pupils assessed in this PISA study did not experience most of the changes that we have made to secondary education and experienced virtually none of our reforms to primary education.

It is, though, particularly disappointing to see us ranked 27th for mathematics, down one place again, and to see that 22% of our 15 year-olds cannot solve problems routinely faced by adults in their daily lives. The PISA study shows a strong correlation between the high usage of textbooks in teaching and high scores; textbook usage in England stands at 10%. What plans does the Minister have to significantly increase that measure, as I believe the Schools Minister would like to?

I agree entirely with the noble Lord’s point on the importance of textbooks and rigorous teaching materials. Increasingly, we are seeing multi-academy trusts developing these for their teachers to ease their workload and to support them. We have introduced a rigorous maths curriculum at GCSE. We have launched 35 maths hubs as centres of excellence based on best practice internationally. They will work with schools to introduce high-quality textbooks as part of the department’s £41 million primary programme, Mathematics Mastery, announced in July.

My Lords, can the Minister say how many of the schools that rank high on the PISA report from different countries have selection at 11-plus?

That is a rather precise question. However, it is clear from the report that selection does work, and I will write to the noble Baroness with more detail.

My Lords, the PISA study showed that teacher-directed instruction had a positive impact on science outcomes, whereas inquiry-based learning had a negative impact. What are the Government doing to make sure that this traditional, teacher-led approach is practised more widely in English secondary schools?

My noble friend is absolutely right. The PISA study showed that pupils who report teacher-directed instruction do better in all but three countries, whereas pupils who report inquiry-based instruction do worse in the majority of countries. To support a knowledge-rich curriculum, which is so important, particularly for pupils from a disadvantaged background, clearly more teacher-led direction is necessary.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in a number of the countries that have much higher academic standards at secondary school level, particularly those in the Far East—I know the story of South Korea quite well—there is also a much higher suicide rate among teenagers? Does he agree that our schools need to help people learn in ways that they enjoy and are healthy holistically, and that schools should encourage a love of learning rather than a fear of failure?

I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate, and I pay tribute to the Church’s performance in education—it is particularly good at this. Of course a love of learning is important, and we believe that being taught by teachers with a very high subject knowledge can inspire pupils.

The Minister was rather dismissive of the results, although it is fair to say that the methodology means that to some extent the findings disguise almost as much as they reveal about pupil performance. But one finding in the report that was very important was that almost half of all the head teachers of schools in England—45% in fact—who took part in the survey regard the question of teacher supply as the key barrier to more effective education, whereas the average in other countries was just 30%. In England, the question of teacher recruitment and retention is an existential problem, so can the Minister tell us why the Government insist on continuing to apply caps on the number of places allowed in teacher training universities?

As the noble Lord knows, our emphasis on teacher training has been on in-school training, but we have the highest number of trainees in science for five years; physics—traditionally our hardest subject to recruit for—is up 15% on last year; and we have recruited in excess of our targets in biology, geography and history.

The PISA studies lend themselves to cross-country comparisons which, like any league table, are always tremendously attractive to readers. However, they also purport to measure absolute standards, which are ultimately more important. There is a somewhat spurious use of tiny differences—from, for example, 827 to 828. Does the Minister have any information on, or plans to do any research into, whether or not there have actually been changes in the absolute standard of achievement of British children on the PISA tests?

I think the absolute standard has remained fairly static, but in view of the noble Baroness’s excellent work on education reform, I do not want to enter into a discussion, and I will write to her about that.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that last time we had the PISA results there was a Statement in the other place that was repeated here, but given the fact that we are down three places in maths and our score in science is lower than before, I can perhaps understand why that has not happened again. The Minister will be aware that there is also an OECD survey about continuing professional development among teachers. I am afraid that the average is 11 days per annum, whereas the UK provides only four. How important does he think it is to make sure that the continuing professional development of our teachers is up to that of our competitors?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord on that. Again, it is something that the multi-academy trusts are focusing on intensively in terms of supporting their teachers with CPD. We have an active programme, for instance, in maths. We fund high-quality professional development for maths teachers through our further maths support programme, our core maths support programme, the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics and a number of universities.