Chris Skidmore

PISA rankings are a shot in the arm for education reformers

Like measuring water by the handful, calculating the success of the education system at a time of rampant grade inflation is an impossible task. If exam results go up every year how can we know if are our children are actually getting a better education or if exams are just getting easier?

Part of the answer is international comparisons – which is why the OECD PISA rankings published today do actually matter. The last time they were published, in 2009, they showed that as a country we slipped to 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science. Yet at the same time domestic UK exam results were getting better. If you think that doesn’t add up, that’s because it doesn’t.

In their haste to provide positive headlines and tokens of success, Labour left behind the one thing that actually mattered – giving children a decent education. By looking at standardised international indicators we can get a sense of what was actually going on. Of course they are not perfect – far from it. But the OECD commands independence from the UK’s education establishment, and when impartial advisors speak we must listen.

The picture painted by today’s PISA results was one of stagnation. These are the results of teenagers who took the tests in 2012 – the children of Labour’s education system. They are in danger of becoming a lost generation, entering the job market without the skills needed to succeed.

No one knows more about the economic cost of a failing system as the OECD themselves. Andreas Schleicher the OECD’s education chief, and the man behind today’s PISA results, has written that problems with the UK’s schools cost us £4.5 trillion in lost economic output over a lifetime, something he calls ‘the equivalent of a permanent recession’.

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