Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure.
If Sir Michael Barber and Pearson International are right, Britain's schools have made a huge jump in the international league tables. Two years ago, the OECD ranked Britain 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science. Now, our overall rank is sixth!
Sir Michael Barber, the former head of Tony Blair's 'Delivery Unit', is a past master at meeting targets. The secret, it would seem, is to set them yourself. This new headline figure is not the official OECD ranking based upon the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, although these scores are taken into account. Rather, Sir Michael has helped Pearson International develop an assessment known as The Learning Curve. It is based upon selected qualitative and quantitative measures. One of them is the number of pupils going on to university - a measure which we improved at a stroke by re-naming our polytechnics.
One can see why Pearson employed Sir Michael. When he was 'driving up standards' in England's schools, National Curriculum test scores improved at a rate which was mathematically impossible for such a large sample. Sir Michael, who is not a mathematician, can presumably be excused this lapse. However, sanity was restored when Prof Peter Tymms - the head of Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Management - appeared before the Commons Education Committee and exposed the scams that had been used to create to create this illusion. Durham's own tests revealed that our schools were more or less flat-lining - scores had actually gone down on some measures.
However, we must not cavil. People like Sir Michael are needed to keep our morale up in these difficult times. On the very same morning that Pearson released his report, another Sir Michael (our Chief Inspector of Schools) announced that 2 million English children are attending failing schools. Never mind - our independent schools are among the world's best, and no doubt this makes up for the poor souls who draw the short straw in the lottery devised by our betters.
And those of you who were worried about the challenge posed by the Chinese economy can now relax - China's schools came in dead last on The Learning Curve. Their education system just hasn't taken on board the marvellous advances in British education. Pearson International, which counts Britain's schools among its most important markets, apparently hasn't broken into the Chinese market yet.
One wonders how the Chinese manage to rub along. Consider this quote from The Learning Curve:
“Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.”
If you think about it, this is breath-taking cheek. As Prof Alison Wolf pointed out in her review of vocational education, the economy changes so fast that qualifications are obsolete before they are launched. No one knows what skills are going to be needed next year, let alone when today's pupils are struggling to find jobs (hedge fund manager, anyone?). The best we can do is to emulate the Germans, where vocational training is provided by industry, and the Hauptschule merely adds a gloss of traditional academic subjects. But then according to The Learning Curve, the German educational system is languishing in the 15th slot, just behind Poland (but well ahead of the poor Chinese). One can only wonder how many textbooks Pearson sells in Germany.