“The current system, run by Ed Balls and Gordon Brown for the last 13 years, has seen us move down the international league tables so other countries have moved ahead of us in literacy, in mathematics, in science.”
Michael Gove, Today, BBC Radio 4, 26 April 2010
Record exam results are a summer tradition, suggesting either that the tests are getting easier or that educational standards in this country are improving year after year.
But this morning the shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, painted an unflattering picture of Britain’s educational performance compared to the wider world.
We had, he said, moved down the international league tables in three key areas. The Tory manifesto made a similar claim, saying “Britain is slipping down the world league tables in reading, maths and science”.
But schools aren’t football teams – can we really compare performance across the world in a kind of educational premier league? And if so, is the UK really in the relegation zone?
The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is a respected study, looking at how 15-year-olds are doing in maths, science and reading in developed countries every three years.
The most recent results are from 2006, so students who would have had most, though not all, of their schooling under Labour.
These rank the UK around average – scoring close to the OECD average, along with countries such as France and Germany, but out-performed by the likes of Finland and South Korea.
But does this show we’ve been getting worse, compared to the rest of the world?
At a glance, you might think so. In 2000, the UK came around fourth in science, seventh in reading and eighth in maths; in 2006 we were around 14th, 17th and 24th respectively.
But the sample also changed in that time: in 2000, 43 countries took part in the study, but in 2006, 58 joined in. And some of the new entrants — particularly small countries such as Estonia, Macau and Slovenia – jumped in above us in some subjects.
Although it may be galling that these countries are ranking ahead of Britain, it’s hard to take that as evidence we’re dropping down the league table when the same countries weren’t included first time round.
But even putting this aside, the OECD rejects the idea that its data sets up an international league table, saying it doesn’t rank countries in this way.
“It’s not the purpose of the data and we have not drawn that conclusion,” said an OECD spokesman when we asked him about Gove’s claim that the UK’s standards were falling behind other countries. “The data isn’t complete and can’t be used to say that.”
The OECD has had reservations about the UK’s past data; we weren’t included in the 2003 results; and in 2000, too few schools took part, although assessors decided at the time that this was unlikely to have a significant impact on the results. However, the 2006 report, which uses a stricter standard, cautions against drawing comparisons with the UK’s 2000 performance.
So why do the Conservatives make the claim? They told FactCheck it is worth comparing data from 2000 with that of 2006, saying there would be little point in doing the study if the results don’t tell us anything about broad international trends, and that the data is used in this way by governments and media outlets across the world.
“It is, in fact, negligent to ignore, as Labour have done, clear international evidence that we’re moving backwards in terms of education performance,” a spokesman said.
International data rates 15-year-olds in the UK about average among developed countries in reading, maths and science.
But it’s misleading to draw from this that we have fallen behind other countries in recent years as the data is not only incomplete but the sample has increased so it’s not comparing like with like.
And given that the OECD themselves say the data cannot be used as an educational league table FactCheck feels it cannot give Mr. Gove a fact rating on this claim.
Read more: Leaders’ debate round 2: FactChecked