PISA: Who Wants A Slice Of The International Ranking Action?

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Helen Woodley

Helen Woodley is a primary trained SENDCo currently working in a large KS1-4 Pupil Referral Unit in the North East of England. She spent 3 years studying Theology in Durham; Helen has worked in a wide variety of special school settings, including all age schools....
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Can we apply the methods of our colleagues from around the world to get better results?

I have just returned from a conference by ESREA (European Society for Research on the Education of Adults) hosted by the education department at Aarhus University in Copenhagen. Among a variety of people interested in adult learners, there were many teacher trainers and a smattering of working teachers.

Before attending, my impression of Danish schools was highly influenced by the Forest School movement. I did see elements of this philosophy with each school having outdoor space where children, covered in mud, played in the rain. I also saw it in the literal ‘open door’ policy where children weren’t locked behind gates as every single school opened straight onto the street. However, there were signs that my utopian view of the Scandinavian system was far from perfect.

Since 2000, countries have had a growing interest in PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) which ranks the education system of each country in reading, maths and science. Currently the U.K. is 15th with Singapore topping the list. The Scandinavian countries sit somewhere below.

Step Back

A decade ago, the Danes were shocked by their ranking and sought to radically improve their schools.

Whereas previously, teachers had been trained to teach all subjects to all ages, subject specialists have crept in.

Whilst Forest Schools offer full time education to the under 7s, their influence is decreasing during the formal years.  And it’s not just the Danes, as Sweden and Norway are both going through an evaluation of teacher training and curriculum offer.

Outside of Scandinavia, the cracks are also showing. Poland has just forcibly scrapped the whole three tier system and replaced it with two, leaving many teachers unemployed or being offered managerial posts in supermarkets. French schools are also increasingly looking to maximise learning time, by cutting back on less ‘important’ subjects.

So, where does that leave the UK? Teachers are not in as bad a state as many other colleagues across the water … Yet. For all eyes seem focused on countries who top the PISA lists from Asia.

Whilst away last week, a few of us discussed this and came to the following conclusion: you can’t simply take a model from another country and apply it to your own. Think back to Forest Schools in the U.K. Rather than modelling the full time version in Denmark, the vast majority of UK ones are timetabled for a few hours a week so that schools can say, ‘we do Forest Schools don’t you know!’.

They are as far removed from the Danish version as possible. So can we really apply the methods of our colleagues from Singapore to get better results? We are culturally very different so where would they fit? Added to that, why would we want to?

Smash And Grab

One of my personal frustrations with being a UK teacher has always been the inability of those up the system who try so hard to raise standards, by grabbing ideas from everywhere else; that they fail to notice the amazing work already happening in our schools. Shouldn’t this be our priority? Forget PISA for a while and focus on growing and developing a system matched to our needs. Value and trust those teachers who have a wealth of experience to be professional and get the job done. Let us do what we passionately want to do: teach.

My final memories of the conference and teaching were positive: we are never alone in feeling frustrated with our profession, and at times – as just over the water – there are colleagues who share our concerns and are ready with the hugs and mugs of tea.

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