Home > General Politics > Why are our higher achievers not achieving?

Why are our higher achievers not achieving?

As you might expect, Schools Minster Liz Truss has jumped on the press release from the Institute of Education that “the highest-achieving pupils in England can almost match the most able children in Taiwan and Hong Kong in maths tests at the age of 10. But by the time they  take their GCSEs they have fallen nearly two years behind their Far Eastern counterparts.”

Truss says:

This report is a damning indictment of Labour’s record on education. Based on data from between 2003 and 2009 it shows that our top pupils actually lose ground as they get older, not just with their peers in the Far East, but with those in every country studied.

“This government is clearing up Labour’s mess. Our reforms: tougher discipline, more rigorous exams, more freedom for headteachers, a more demanding curriculum and higher quality teaching, will drive up standards so our pupils have a first-class education that matches the best in the world.”

I’m not sure Truss has actually read the working paper itself (which, oddly, isn’t published in the place it was supposed to be available this morning, but is available here); this finding about the higher achievers is only one part of the report and a key recommendation is actually that there should be a focus on pre-school and primary education rather than on secondary, so that all children get closer to their East Asian counterparts at age 10, but Truss prefers to focus on discipline and exams.  It is to shadow minster Kevin Brennan’s credit that he picks this up, accusing the government of having the “wrong priorities”.

Nevertheless, the report by John Jerrim and Alvao Choi does indeed say, that while for most children the gap between England and East Asia does not grow:

[The data] suggests that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and the highest achieving children in East Asia increases between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school (p.15)

This may well be a valid cause for concern (and the authors recommend the strengthening of AGT programmes), but one apparent omission from the working paper intrigues me.  In 2011, in an earlier paper on the PISA 2009 results, the same author, John Jerrim, noted:

Perhaps the most important (that I am aware of) is that the month when children sat the PISA test moved from between March and May (in PISA 2000 / 2003) to roughly five months earlier (November/December) in PISA 2006 / 2009. England had special dispensation to make this change (i.e. this is not something that occurred in other countries) and although this was for good reason (the PISA 2000 and 2003 studies clashed with preparation for national exams and so was a significant burden on schools) it may have had unintended consequences. Again, I believe this is a change that has occurred only in PISA and not in TIMSS.

How might this influence the trend in England’s PISA test scores? Firstly, it is important to understand that between November/December and March‐May of year 11 is likely to be a period when children add substantially to their knowledge of the PISA subjects as it is when pupils are working towards important national exams. Consequently, one should expect the year 11 pupils in the PISA 2000/2003 cohort to out‐perform their peers taking the test in 2006/2009 due to the extra five months they have had at school. To provide an analogy, imagine that one group of children took a mock GCSE maths exam in November, and another group the following April; clearly one would expect the former to obtain lower marks (on average) than the latter. This would in turn suggest an overestimation of the decline in PISA maths scores over time of this potential bias is not easy, although it has been widely cited that one additional school year is equivalent to roughly 40 PISA test points (0.4 of an international standard deviation). See OECD (2010b page 110) for further details.  This would imply that year 11 children who sat the PISA test in 2000 might be expected to outperform the 2009 cohort by roughly 15 PISA test points (0.15 of an international standard deviation) due to their additional five months at school (p.16-17).




There are two matters of particular note that do make it into the working paper, though, which might have given Liz Truss pause for thought if she’d bothered to read it.

First, there is the issue of private tuition, especially as it relates to the high achievement issue Truss is keen to focus on:

Evidence presented in this paper has suggested that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and the highest achieving children in East Asia widens between ages 10 and 16 (at least in mathematics). This is something that needs to be corrected as highly skilled individuals are likely to be important for the continuing success of certain major British industries (e.g. financial services) and to foster the technological innovation needed for long-run economic growth (Bean and Brown 2005, Toner 2011). One possible explanation for this finding is the widespread use of private tuition by East Asian families for both remedial and enrichment purposes (Ono, 2007; Sohn et al., 2010). This helps to boost the performance of all pupils, including those already performing well at school. In comparison, private tutoring in England is mainly undertaken by a relatively small selection of children from affluent backgrounds, often for remedial purposes. While a large proportion of East Asian families are willing to personally finance such activities through the private sector, the same is unlikely to hold true in the foreseeable future within England. Consequently, the state may need to intervene. Gifted and talented schemes, a shift of school and pupil incentives away from reaching floor targets (e.g. a C grade in GCSE mathematics) and enhanced tuition for children who excel in school are all possible policy responses (p.19)

For those of us involved in education, this rings true.  There is little doubt that there has been too much emphasis on the C/D borderline, and the proposed changes to the league tables as a means of changing this are welcome.   But this won’t be enough in itself to really make a difference for poor children who could be higher achievers.  This requires resources channelled into state schools, not siphoned off for free schools or used as bribes to get schools to become academies.

Second, and more fundamentally, this isn’t just about schools.  As the report notes:

Indeed, it is important for academics and policymakers to recognise that East Asian children vastly out-perform their English peers even when they have been through the English schooling system.  This is perhaps the clearest indication tha it is actually what happens outside of school that is driving these countiries’ supoerior PISA and TIMSS math twst performacne (p.20)

So while Truss is busy finding reasons to blame schools for stuff which remains largely outside their control (a point well made by Chris Cook), Labour in opposition should be focusing on how it cannot not only keep on improving education, but also on improving the broader opportunities of the children being educated.

That’s serious education policy, based on evidence.  Liz Truss wouldn’t understand.


Categories: General Politics
  1. oldcobbler
    February 23, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I wonder whether it really matters that much – given the dozens of factors involved, does this higher achievement at school ultimately result in higher productivity in the workplace ? I don’t suppose we know, but the USA, despite indifferent performance as judged by PISA seems to have enjoyed faster growth in Total Factor Productivity in recent years than many European countries with supposedly more successful education systems

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