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Are you taking the PISA?

A nebulous comparison.

In December this year, the 2018 PISA results will be published in the media. We need to take these with a pinch of salt. Let’s make it clear from the get-go, more children than ever before are achieving 5 A-C (9-4) than ever before. Teachers are working as hard as ever, we aren’t a failing education system. Within its inequality-ridden context, the UK isn’t actually doing that bad. Poor PISA results don’t mean failure on behalf of our students, this is a terrible comparative ideology.

These 2015 PISA results scream ‘OMG’ but without context, just hang fire.

What is PISA?

PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. These are pen to paper, 2 and a half hours long tests that are completed in stone cold silence. 79 countries in total put their 15 years olds head to head in an international battle to see which education system is the best. PISA, at the core, is pretty much an IQ test. Being a holistic educator, your PISA scores say little about the real life skills & credentials you need in real life. But hey, with PISA, TIMSS & PIRLS, we are developing some sort of comparative method of how effective our education system is.

So what’s the issue?

We have an international comparison of our young people. This is fab. At face value, we can now begin to see how our children do compare to those in Sweden or Japan. The issue isn’t with PISA as a testing mechanism, the issue is with its distorted use by politicians to enforce and thrust through educational policies without assessing the context of stakeholders in the UK education system. My critique will focus on; context, ideology & concerns around PISA.

Context is everything.

Would you ever compare apples and pears? Their texture, taste & even colour is totally different. The climates in which they grow vary. Alterations in soil & farming methods differ. Agriculturally, they are simply two different fruits. I would hate to think if I went into my local supermarket to buy an apple pie & left with a poached pear that I’d realise the difference immediately.

Context is key. So why are we comparing the UK’s education system to other leading nations? They are fundamentally different & therefore cannot be measured using the same standardised assessment.

We can not compare the UK education system to our Scandinavian or Japanese counterparts. Let’s start with Scandinavian nations who have higher taxation therefore less division between the richest & poorest in society. Whereas here in the UK, inequality is rife. The richest 10% of the population own 1/3 of the nation’s wealth. The poorest 10% own just 1% of the UK’s wealth. In Britain, we do not have an equal society which has far-reaching ramifications on the educational attainment of the poorest & richest students as well as impacts on health, social mobility, crime & poverty to name a few. The context is different so can we make such a neatly-sealed comparison? Apples & pears!

As the graph indicates, the UK is amongst the most unequal developed nations. Our Scandinavian counter parts tend to have less of a income chasm. Should we be making comparisons with countries that are so contextually different? 🍏 🍐

In Japan & other Asian nations, great emphasis is placed on education. I grew up in a South-Asian household. This is not to imply homogeneity but rather to prevent comparisons that simple duck & dodge the contextual issue. I remember the emphasis placed on education growing up. The constant push & internal sibling competition at home. British politicians aren’t looking to change the culture of British families. But rather, they want to reorganise the schooling structure. Yet this makes little or no sense when high educational standards & etiquette are installed into Asian children at home, not at school. A comparison, again, just isn’t plausible here either.


It’s totally understandable for someone like Michael Gove to want to shake things up, leave his legacy and mark on education. Education is part of the political arena and each political actor has their own view on how schools should run. But people’s careers, their children’s education & the future of the country are on the line. Should your own ideological obsessions but others at risk?

People like Michael Gove often quoted PISA scores to help usher his ‘new’ educational reforms. We were falling behind all other nations hence the push for more free schools, academies, performance related pay & accountability of teachers.

These PISA scores were used as empirical fact to begin Gove’s revolution. The Free Schools bill was passed, heavy focus on standards, ‘functional skills’ became a regular buzzword. Although this article isn’t a critique of Gove (and there’s plenty of them out there), the over-reliance on PISA without context has largely simplified & distorted the reality of attainment in the UK.

Free Schools originated in Sweden. These weren’t simply built out of a European jolly-boys outing. Sweden is a country where Free Schools were established in areas where they received political support & in more affluent areas. This country had decentralised school funding, teacher-led curriculums & less routinely collected assessment data. Therefore to openly parade the idea that Free Schools have been a success, that’s empirically impossible to validate. Research from Allen (2010) found that children attending Free Schools have no real difference in terms of attainment to those attending other regional educational establishments.

With lower-income inequality & division in terms of earnings, the notion of ‘choice’ for parents is reduced as all schools have a similar socio-economic composition. Free Schools in the UK tend to be in the hands of those who can afford them; wealthier families. Of course they will excel as it’s virtually biblical that your parental background dictates your educational outcomes. This whole ‘cherry-picking’ of Free Schools without context by the likes of Gove is one hell of an expensive experiment. Evidence suggests that policies such a performance related pay & the ubiquity of academies have done little to improve standards. We have to be so careful at the inferences we make.

Was the glass half full or half empty? Inferences from PISA need a transparent context-driven oversights.

Concerns with PISA

The OECD has openly said that PISA does not measure school curriculums, knowledge or competencies required in school. Yet politicians are using this data as Gods word & to push forward more educational reforms. PISA does measure the competences in the core subjects, namely, Maths, English & Science. PISA itself has been vocally considered as a measurement of “skills for life”. In a test scenario, does PISA relate to the real-life situations young people encounter on a daily basis? Svein Sjoberg of the Univesity of Oslo strongly criticised PISA for being agenda-driven & at face value, distorting results to fulfil the ideological dreams of politicians.

There’s also a mismatch in terms of when PISA assessments are sat, some countries even prepare their students to undertake PISA tests. PISA tuition isn’t uncommon. Some countries place a HUGE emphasis on PISA. Topping the rankings internationally, for some nations means a lot. A real sense of pride. Most students in the UK probably have no idea what PISA stands for let alone its prestige & the gravitas it strains from a child in Singapore. Context!

In Summary:

International comparative data has its place, its incredible deductive principles & possibilities. However, the UK is going through rapid socio-economic changes, with education also a by-product of these changes.

Context-driven research should equate to context-driven conversations, in turn leading to context-driven policies. Nothing exists in a vacuum & until we begin to rectify issues of inequality, deprivation & inequity in wider society, PISA-centric reforms alone will not be the magic wand to accompany the magic money tree that’s being planted. As Basil Bernstein reminds us “education cannot compensate for society”.

Thank you for reading. A massive thank you to Dr Emma Smith & Dr Patrick White for your incredible insight into Social Justice & Empiricism respectively. Sentiments of my undergrad massively reflect this article.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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