Education reform: not a pisa cake

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In 2012, EEF published its Route to Growth report, which set a number of benchmarks to drive Government action in a number of areas. This included 65% of school leavers achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE including English and maths.

We set this benchmark against a backdrop that attainment in key subjects is crucial for young people, whether they choose a vocational pathway, such as Apprenticeship, or remain in further or higher education. With this figure currently at 68.1%, we are still some way off the mark.

A skilled and educated workforce is crucial if we are to compete on the global stage, and so we must look at how the UK is performing in comparison to its international competitors.

Yesterday, saw the publication of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)– a survey that assesses the extent to which 15 year olds have acquired key knowledge and skills essential for full participation in modern societies.

So let's take a look at some the headlines:

The UK performs around the average in mathematics and reading and above average in science, compared with the 34 OECD countries.

When compared to PISA 2006 and PISA 2009, there has been no change in performance in any of the subjects tested.

The UK is listed 26th in mathematics performance, but because results are based on a sample, its relative position could be between 23rd and 31st.

These headlines are ‘underwhelming' to say the least. Especially if you factor into account the fact that the UK has a higher GDP and spends more on education that the average in OECD countries.

So what are we getting wrong and how can we put it right?

The Government has announced a number of reforms to drive attainment in key subjects (English, maths and the sciences), many of which have been welcomed by manufacturers, including:

Marks being awarded at GCSE for accurate spelling, punctuation and use of grammar.

More rigorous assessment and a new curriculum for Key Stage 4 maths.

Reforming the content of science in the national curriculum and introducing a new GCSE in computer science focusing on teaching students the fundamentals of programming an creating technology.

Attracting more physics, chemistry, maths and computer science graduates into teaching through bursaries and scholarships.

But we are only half-way there (if that). Too much emphasis has been placed on attempts to radically reforming exams at Key Stage 4, with reforms such as changing the grading system from A* to G to 1 to 9 which will have little impact on actual outcomes (apart from confusing employers further).

Instead the Government must re-focus its efforts on driving up the quality of teaching and ensuring that more students achieve good grades in critical subjects.

Bursaries to attract top graduates into teaching is a start, but there is far more that can be done. Government should explore options of capping repayment fees of graduates that study key subjects at universities and go onto teach them for example.

Employers must play a role also and should teach key subjects in schools on a part-time basis to demonstrate their practical application and bring these subjects to life (they can even offer a bit of careers advice on the way – two birds, one stone!), and schools must open their doors widely to allow this to happen.

By getting more female industry experts into schools, this will also help to overcome the other challenge that the PISA figures shed some light on – the low numbers of young girls going into engineering.

Looking at the PISA figures for science for example, boys in the UK outperform girls in science by an average of 13 points – a far greater difference than the OECD average gender gap of 1 score point.

We also know from DfE data, that there remains a gulf between the numbers of boys and girls sitting physics and chemistry at GCSE, a trend that continues (and worsens) at A-level.

Girls are also more likely to be anxious when it comes to maths, which has resulted in far fewer females sitting maths at A-Level than their male counterparts. Yet qualifications in the sciences and maths are a pre-requisite for studying almost all engineering disciplines.

Manufacturers are ready and waiting to recruit young people, but they must be assured that students are equipped with the right skills. Education reform is not always easy, but Government must re-focus its efforts on driving up the quality of teaching and ensuring all young people are attaining qualifications in key subjects.

Fancy a go at the PISA maths test? Try it out here!


Head of Education & Skills Policy

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