Why would the Head of Ofsted lie about our children’s literacy?
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted, was the object of some ridicule this morning for his failure to grasp a pretty basic mathematical concept (just like his boss Gove had done). Polly Curtis at the Guardian’s Fact Check covered that well, drawing out how this slip of the tongue reflects how averages have gradually become targets.
There is, though, a much more serious charge to be levelled at Wilshaw.
On BBC radio 5 this morning (from about 2mins 11secs) Wilshaw stated:
It is a national concern and especially when you look at the international league tables which show that we’re down from 7th in the world 10 years ago to 23rd in the world and that countries are doing better than us…
This is out of keeping with the very Moving English Forward report he was on air to talk about. This report says (para 96):
The government has placed increasing emphasis on international comparisons which appear to show that England has fallen down the league table when it comes to performance in literacy. The White Paper [The Importance of Teaching, 2010] argues: “What really matters is how we’re doing compared with our international competitors. That is what will define our economic growth and our country‟s future. The truth is, at the moment we are standing still while others race past. In the most recent OECD PISA survey in 2006 we fell from… 7th to 17th in literacy.
What that 2010 White Paper actually says (para 4.36) is:
England fell in the PIRLS rankings from 3rd out of 35 in 2001 to 15th out of 40 in 2006. In the most recent PISA survey in 2006, England fell from 4th to 14th in science, 7th to 17th in literacy, and 8th to 24th in mathematics.
So neither the PISA (for 15 year old reading) or the PIRLS (for 11 year olds) data quoted show that England is in Wilshaw’s purported 23rd place.
The PIRLS data quoted in the White Paper is in fact correctly quoted there (see table 1.2 of this report), but this is not referred to in his own organisation’s report, even though it is for the age group (11 year olds) about whom he expresses most concern.
So not only has Wilshaw apparently referred to his own report incorrectly both in terms of international comparison, he’s also managed to sign off a report which quotes the wrong age group figures in the first place.
From where, then, does Wilshaw pluck this mysterious 23rd place, different from the one given in his own report? The answer may lie in an October 2011 Department for Education press release, which I examined at the time. This press release states:
England has tumbled down the international tables in the last nine years – from 7th to 25th in reading; 8th to 28th in maths; and 4th to 16th in science.
This 25th is only 2 places away from Wilshaw’s claim, and the two can be reconciled by the fact that in the original DfE coverage failed to notice that England was only behind Denmark and Chinese Taipei in the table because, though all three are on the same score, England starts with a later letter in the alphabet.
But as I noted in my earlier post, that DfE press release contains a catalogue of other, more serious errors; it fails to note that some 12 other countries nominally above England have statistically insignificant higher scores; it fails to note that two countries in the new table are there for the first time and so skew the trend; and it fails to take account of the OECD’s utterly explicit warning (para 2) against comparing earlier PISA results with the 2006 data, because the response rate for the earlier years was so low as to raise big concerns about sample validity.
So what do we have, in summary?
We have a Chief Inspector - head of a supposedly independent organisation - operating in apparent collusion with a government department to give a deliberately false and negative impression of literacy standards and English teaching in England. Why else would he discard the information provided in his own report, which he’s been asked onto radio to talk about, in favour of other, more negative figures apparently dredged from a dodgy press release?
This is not only potentially scandalous in terms of Wilshaw’s own lack of integrity. It is also very bad news for teachers and children, because it reveals just how politicised literacy has become.
In fact the PIRLS data referred to in the 2010 White Paper (but left out of today’s Ofsted report) could be useful, not least because it shows up how much more unequal the distribution in achievement is between the upper and lowe percentiles compared with other countries (see Exhibit 1.1 in this PIRLS report). This could, if properly used, have provided a clue that the measures needed are around narrowing inequalities at the lower achieving.
Instead, Wilshaw prefers to ignore this kind of refined analysis and to bluster on in the press about the need to raise targets for everyone, even though there is no evidence that the actual target is the problem, and even though this is a 2010 White Paper announcement rather than something in the new report:
So one of the first questions we need to ask is whether the national end-of-primary-school target of level 4 is sufficiently high to provide an adequate foundation for success at secondary school.
In short, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Sir Michael Wilshaw is anything more than a Gove lapdog, happy to bash teachers and children for narrow political purpose, and to use manifestly incorrect data to do so.
In the current political environment, therefore, he’ll go far.