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Seduced by statistics? Quality is vital when reputation's at stake; The results of the world's biggest education survey are due for publication later this year. But, explains Education Editor Gareth Evans, Wales has its work cut out with Pisa.

Byline: Edited by Gareth Evans 029 2024 3638 gareth.evans@walesonline.co.uk

FOR those immersed in the sphere of education as much as I am, the international Pisa rankings are never far from view.

Whether you like them or not, they cannot be ignored - to do so would be naive in the extreme, given the apparent impact of the Programme for International Student Assessment on economic prosperity. Big business has been known to cite Pisa tables as reason for investing in certain countries over others and some of the world's leading economies call upon OECD research for guidance.

Nothing is ever universally popular, but the sheer volume of ministries taking part in the triennial study suggests its findings are important - on the international stage at least.

Domestically Pisa is far more divisive and seen by practitioners as yet another tool with which to beat schools around the head.

Despite the Welsh Government's concerted effort to raise Pisa's profile there remains a disconnect between what ministers think and what those at the chalkface believe.

Wales is not singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to Pisa, and while that remains the case, it is difficult to imagine a dramatic upsurge in performance any time soon.

Conflicting views were brought into sharp focus recently at an education hustings hosted by teaching unions NUT Cymru, Ucac, and ATL Cymru.

Pisa was a particularly contentious topic of discussion, and I thought it regrettable that large swathes of the audience were opposed to Pisa and its unquestionable influence.

"Pisa is a drug that parents need to be weaned off," said one member of the audience. "We have mentioned Pisa so much to the parents that they can't live without it."

Likening the world's biggest school survey to "a drug that parents need to be weaned off" may sound slightly excessive.

But it is symptomatic of the level of vitriol that still resides in some quarters of the teaching profession. Gert Biesta, professor of education at Brunel University London, has written a paper on "resisting the seduction of the global education measurement industry" in which he questions why world economies are so willing to invest in Pisa "and everything that comes with it".

He writes: "The most visible way in which systems such as Pisa are seductive is in that they seem to provide clear, unambiguous and easyto-digest-and-communicate information about the apparent quality of educational systems, particularly with regard to their 'performance'.

"One obvious issue here is that Pisa only measures performance (or achievement) in a small number of school subjects (mathematics, science and reading) and only focuses on performance at one particular point on the educational career of young people (at the age of 15).

"While it may be useful to have such information available, even the suggestion that what Pisa measures provides a valid indication of the quality of education - both as system and as practice - is difficult to accept.

"The fact that Pisa seems to function in this way and is accepted as a good indication of the quality of education thus indicates, in my view, the seductive power of numbers and of league tables."

Prof Biesta said it was wrong to focus solely on the performance of education systems - and we have a moral duty to consider how that performance is brought about in practice.

He said: "That some high-performing education systems seem to be in countries where there are also large numbers of young people with severe psychological problems seems to indicate that at least in some cases the price that is being paid to end up at the top of the list is humanely and educatively too high.

"We should not be willing to pay any price for making education work according to what we desire from it, partly for educative reasons and partly for wider moral and political reasons."

So why do people invest so heavily in benchmarking tools such as Pisa? "This question... is particularly relevant given that Pisa in itself has no power (and may not even claim to have any power) but nonetheless has become powerful because people seem to believe in it, or seem to have beliefs that lead them to support systems such as Pisa," said Prof Biesta. "Perhaps there is... something infantile in the desires invested in systems such as Pisa - both in the way in which they seem to want to make the workings of education completely transparent, and in the way in which, through comparison and league tables, they wish to create a clear hierarchy; where some are at the top and others at the bottom in such a way that they should be blamed and are being blamed for being there.

"One way to go beyond systems such as Pisa is therefore to ask what a grown-up response to the complexities of education might look like; one where we do expect that education may make a difference, but where we do not think that through measurement and interventions based upon such measurements we can make education perfect."

Prof Biesta raises some valid points that will resonate with many in the education sector regardless of where in the world they teach.

But while Pisa remains so popular - and has the weight of more than 70 countries behind it - I for one will continue to champion its cause.

It seems entirely reasonable that Welsh pupils should be given a grounding in the type of skills worldleading economies are looking for. Those sitting Pisa tests may not think so at the time, but Wales must perform well or risk unquestionable reputational damage.

The challenge, it seems, is getting that message across.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 2, 2016
Words:966
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