#4 The leaning tower of PISA

We’re nearly at the end of our study tour and I want to focus back on the title of our work – International benchmarking. In the UK we are used to being held up to the PISA rankings and found wanting.
Colleagues have reported from a similar study tour to Shanghai that Chinese children are prepared uniquely for the PISA tests. The implication being that the Chinese set out to top the international tables and did everything they could in terms of allocating resource to achieve that. And they have. In the UK we don’t teach to this particular test. A tweet from Dylan Wiliam this morning confirms some of the difficulties of such benchmarking:
Dylan Wiliam @dylanwiliam Shanghai’s PISA scores do not include around 100k 15-year old migrants not allowed to enroll in school: econ.st/1dmN5OD
However, I asked Dylan Wiliam if he was aware of the suggestion that the Chinese prepared for the tests and he reported “no evidence” of this being the case.
The idea that UK schools have not “gamed” this international system has many apocryphal tales attached to it.
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Interestingly, having reached the heights, the Chinese (and the Australians – also above the UK in PISA rankings), have used the tests diagnostically to identify areas in which their students are weaker; this is where the perceived creative skills gap was identified.
Dr Paul Brock, a highly esteemed Director of learning and development research at the University of Sydney asks professionals to be cautious about educational research. Very eloquently he reminded us of the thousands of pounds used to create the McKinsey report that told us the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership had the biggest impact on student outcomes. In short, no surprises there. Great school leaders should trust that they know what works and, implicitly, Governments should trust them also.
Other structural observations about the system in Australia:
1: Long service leave is a significant element of Australian culture – across the public and private sectors. In essence, employees receive an allocation of paid leave for time served. Subject to approval from the Principal. So, if you had been teaching for 10 years you would be entitled to take 12 weeks paid leave at any point in the school year. In UK currency for example, after 10 years you could decide to add your 12 weeks to your summer holiday and take the autumn term off also. A very attractive idea. The time also accrues if you don’t take it. To what extent does this service benefit contribute to student outcomes? That teachers get the chance to refresh and are more connected to the profession as a consequence?
2: There is no culture of lesson observation, as a principal said to us, “We don’t normally watch each other work.” Going into a set of reforms in which schools will have increasing authority to hold themselves to account it seems that this would be the most important cultural precept to challenge for school leaders in Australia.
3: Although there are no league tables per se, there is a site www.myschool.edu.au on which much of the data we would recognise from the DfE’s “Gove Compare” site – from student performance indicators to financial statements and budgets. However, there is no emphasis on levels of progress for individual students (the data is attainment based – on national averages and similar schools), and there are no side-by-side judgements available. In fact, we heard a commitment to move away from league tables and market driven choice from the top authorities in NSW. So, there are no floor targets or open, public threats associated with under-performance.
4: There has been, on this tour, a reinforcement of the importance of co-curricular and competencies over knowledge based, competitive approaches to academic study – this explains the relative emphasis placed upon the vision and values of the schools. Australian schools seem more concerned about building the character of young Australians over everything else. Yes, academic achievement is a key facet but it is perhaps only a facet.
I’m not trying to be critical. What I’m saying in these posts is that I like the Australian system. It places a value on the breadth of curricular offer and choice. In terms of building character a quote from the great Don Bradman will be displayed on the walls at DHSB:
Change is certainly on the way however, as the Government looks to come in line with what is perceived as being a global trend for closer accountability for public funding. A new national curriculum is coming, as are a new set of standards for teachers.

The final post from this tour will be an accumulated set of perceptions from delegates sharing some of the excellent things we have seen on our visits alongside a set of questions about educational systems and leadership.

However, I do have a professional concern at the end of these two weeks; I may be functionally unemployable on my return. In my absence, announcements about the curriculum, specifically Drama and PE at GCSE, have been made and I find myself significantly behind the times.


3 thoughts on “#4 The leaning tower of PISA

  1. chickenplymouth

    Hi Kieran, Thank you for taking the time to make a record of your learning out there on tour in Australia. I have always been envious of Australian teachers who I have worked with who have had the most amazing professional development opportunities as a result of the long service leave agreement. Many end up selecting to do what you are doing now experiencing a learning journey about education in other countries. Those I have spoken to have really valued this investment, it would be interesting to see if there is any data on retention or the impact that this then makes when they go back to school. Was there any talk or evidence of this? How could schools in the UK try to replicate this even on a smaller scale? How about teacher exchanges apart of federations or partner schools etc? Would be worth exploring. It is also interesting to read about the league tables, observations etc wonder how your feedback following this experience will influence future plans nationally? Thank you once again this is brilliant food for thought and I look forward to getting the chance to read the other posts.

  2. Ffion Coombs

    This is all fascinating Kieran, and we will be absorbing it over the coming months. There is so much here. My initial observation is that international dialogue and sharing of experiences is so beneficial. I do think that the answer to continuous improvement in any field lies in observation, data and detail. It is right to be cautious and to be aware of how data can be manipulated, too, but this goes to show growing sophistication, a questioning approach and a commitment to driving up standards across the board for all students, and keeping those standards high.

    1. “Approve”

      *Kieran Earley*

      Twitter: @kieran_earley

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