The results of the OECD’s programme for international student assessment – a triennial exam for 15-year-olds known as Pisa – show that China’s Shanghai region easily tops the rest of the world in Maths, Reading and Science.
For me, this raises two questions:
Firstly, if Chinese education is so good, why is it that Blackheath High School is regularly asked to host groups of Head teachers from China who are keen to learn about our education system so that they can improve the education in their own schools? We welcomed six education specialists from China on Tuesday and another group of 16 Head teachers on 8th November.
On Tuesday, with the Pisa table on my mind, I asked my visitors why they were so keen to learn about our education system when their students appear to be doing so much better than UK students. They told me that their education system is very narrow and that their students gain such high results through being taught in a disciplined and regimented way with long hours of study and much homework.
They said that they hold the English education system in high esteem and are impressed by the confidence, skills and creativity of our students. They admire the way that our students benefit from a broad education in which they are encouraged to think for themselves and be proactively engaged in their learning rather than be expected to passively absorb knowledge and skills training.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education and skills and coordinator of the Pisa programme, said that the success of education systems such as Shanghai’s was the result of an emphasis on selecting teachers, as well as prioritising investment in teacher training and development. I would strongly suggest that it is also due to the far longer hours of study and a culture which rewards and expects the highest attainment. In a country, which for many years has had a “one child policy”, where parents rely on their child to be able to support them financially in old age, there is also pressure from parents for students to perform at the highest level so that they can gain well-paid jobs.
The Pisa scores reflect a very limited view of the success of an education; it is a case of measuring what’s easy to measure. If you only count the apples, that’s all you can show – the number of apples.
Our broad education, with its rich programme of extra-curricular activities, offers so much more. At Blackheath High our girls don’t only gain excellent qualifications but also the skills, personal qualities and competencies that will help them to have happy and successful careers and adult lives; qualifications alone are not enough. It’s time that the OECD started to measure the true value of an excellent education.
Secondly and less importantly – why is Shanghai allowed to be represented in the tables when all the other entrants are countries? Would it be so high if average scores across China were used instead? Probably not.