Does the recent report show that we no longer need to re-evaluate our education system?

You might have seen on the BBC website last week a report titled ‘The Learning Curve’, commissioned by Pearson Group and compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit ranking the United Kingdom as the sixth best educator on the planet, behind only Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan & Singapore.

This is surely great cause for celebration then, is it not?

Figure 1

Source: The Learning Curve Report, Conclusions – Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment Chart ed. Denis McCauley. Economist Intelligence Unit

Possibly a vindication of Tony Blair’s 1997 platform of ‘Education, Education, Education’?

Could this even be evidence that countless structural reforms, changes to testing methods, grade boundary adjustments and costly central government commissioned reports on classroom culture for our secondary schools has finally paid off?

If so, it sounds like the reformists are good to pack up and go home then; infiltrating the wealthy, low populous Scandinavian / Asian Tiger quartile is surely the best the country could ever realistically hope for when it comes to education.

Why then is Michael Gove looking to reform the system once again, through adopting similar approaches of nations that have been ranked below the UK in this report?

And can we honestly say our personal experiences here in the UK meet with the conclusions of the report, namely that we fit the description of nations that have a culture of valuing education and education professionals being strong performers?

Questionable Methods? Lies, damn lies & statistics. 

Regarding the report itself, an immediate issue would surely be the potential for bias. Pearson runs not only The Economist but is also the parent company of the secondary school exam board Edexcel, a seemingly rather brazen conflict of interest when it comes to rating the quality of the system.

Then there is the issue of large amounts of contrary anecdotal evidence from lecturers and teachers alike regarding the quality of student’s numeracy and literacy skills upon graduation which has traditionally been perceived as suffering a worryingly downward trend.

This BBC article from April outlined an Ofqual report & work by Cambridge Assessment arguing as much, claiming that;

‘Despite an increase in A-level grade, and higher numbers gaining first-class degrees, universities were not reporting “a comparative increase in the abilities of first-year undergraduates”, […] “If anything, students’ theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower.” The academics interviewed also raised concerns about pupils “learning to the test” – being drilled to pass exams. This culture meant new undergraduates failed to take control of their own degree studies. […] The Ofqual report backs up a study by Cambridge Assessment – which runs the OCR exam board – which suggested universities wanted A-levels to be more intellectually stretching and with less spoon-feeding from teachers. Cambridge Assessment found many lecturers believed students arrived unprepared for degree-level work, with three-in-five lecturers saying that their institutions had to run catch-up classes.’

Additionally, much discussion around the report has so far centred on what this research implies about educational organisation; as two seemingly dichotomous cultures – broadly speaking the choice-centric laidback Scandinavian approach and the strict, competitive & authority based East Asian approach to education have both fared well. Typically these reports will tend to favour one or the other.

This all leads me to questioning the methodology and specifically the metrics that were used in the report to evaluate ‘success’.

The report’s data was compiled at great cost with the help of academics at prestigious Universities in multiple countries which should do much to assuage concerns regarding country based bias.

Utilising parameters such as spend per pupil and percentage of secondary school graduates who went into higher education may seem like reasonable factors to include in the ‘z-scores’ that determine the overall table position of each nation, however issues arise where the report – which claims specifically to measure the efficacy of the 50 education systems sampled –weights these parameters with equal importance to the evidence provided by standardised test scores found in the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) or in the statistics on national literacy rates.

Figure 2

Source: The Learning Curve Report, Education Inputs & Outputs. ed. Denis McCauley. Economist Intelligence Unit

Figure 3

Source: The Learning Curve Report, Education Inputs & Outputs. ed. Denis McCauley. Economist Intelligence Unit

The report explains its own attempt to marry quantitative and qualitative analysis, weighting its various indicators against one another and accounting for cross-dependent factors where correlations were clearly present in the data. (See figs. 2 & 3) Much to its credit the research goes to great lengths to only apply those correlations where a degree of causation can be argued as seen in Fig 3.

However, the methodology still relies on too great an extent of arbitrary praxis.

To use the scientific terminology, this creates potential for an unintentional form of measurement design bias that creates a post hoc regression fallacy exacerbating the experimenter’s mis-attribution of importance of irrelevant or quasi-relevant variables.

In the case of the UK its high score can unfortunately therefore be attributed as much to the growth of the domestic University sector and increases in teacher wages, rather than to tangible improvements in the quality of education.

Tackling what Globalisation has meant for education 

This is where I turn to one man who thinks that completely shifting educational paradigms remains an issue of priority and immediacy.

Sir Kenneth Robinson is an education expert and recipient of the RSA’s Benjamin Franklin award. You may have seen his talks on the RSA’s website or on the excellent TED lecture site.

His argument can be concisely summarised thusly;

‘The problem is that the current system of education was designed and conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.’

For Sir Kenneth, the fundamental issue with Anglo-American education is the emphasis placed on convergent thinking, the standardisation of testing & the negative attitude displayed towards collaborative group work in schools.

He argues that schools have been designed in the image of the factory floor, with the system presumptively organising children by age not ability, testing them to meet narrow parameters rather than to celebrate their diverse interests, and geared above all else at getting them to the end of the conveyer belt, organised neatly into comparative quality of manufacture.

There is much of value in his argument, but the point that stuck with me most was this;

‘Every country on earth on earth is trying to figure out how do we educate our children so they have a sense of cultural identity, so that we can pass on the cultural genes of our communities. While being part of the process globalization, how do you square that circle? The problem is they are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past.’

Surely this can’t be true? The South Korean’s and the Finn’s suffering identity and globalisation based anxiety about education? Some brief research revealed Sir Kenneth is indeed correct, with both nations undergoing huge systemic reforms in the last few years with more planned for the future.

Perhaps UK educational reform should not therefore be seen as a ‘non-issue’ providing useful distraction for ‘busy bodied’, ‘interfering’, ‘jobs worth’ civil servants, as the head-teachers association are oft heard to complain.

Taking Sir Kenneth’s approach, we could be number one in every one of the PISA reports and the work of Education reformers would not be done, this is an area where the yardstick must be independent and contextualised to the individual nation rather than being measured on a comparative and international basis.