Nick Isles, Director, Corporate Agenda

Every three years Dr Andreas Schleicher of the organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals the results of tests on 15 year-olds from across the globe in English, maths and Science. These results are known by the acronym PISA. From them the OECD can create a league table of achievement by country – a ranking if you will of how the education systems of the participating countries are doing when compared against each other. 

In 2013 when the last results (conducted in 2012) were announced then Education Secretary Michael Gove said:

"These poor results show the last government failed to secure the improvements in school standards our young people desperately need. Labour poured billions of pounds into schools and ratcheted up exam grades - yet our education system stagnated and we fell behind other nations. This performance underlines the urgent need for our reforms. Only by learning from other nations and confronting failure at home will we give young people a fighting chance of competing for the jobs of the future."

By common consent Michael Gove, then Nicky Morgan and now Justine Greening, aided and abetted by Ofsted, have wrought much change on our education system in England. As the Ofsted head honcho Michael Wilshaw commented in his annual report published just last week, ‘In my first commentary in 2011/12, I described performance as ‘not good enough; must do better’. It is therefore with great pleasure that, five years later, I can report that our education system has done better. Parents are now much more likely to have access for their children to a good local nursery or school than when I first took up my post. There are 1.8 million more pupils attending good or outstanding maintained schools than in August 2010’

So it was with some excitement I looked forward to seeing what the 2015 PISA results would be. After all Sir Michael Wilshaw had just assured us that everything had improved and that nearly 2 million more pupils enjoyed good or outstanding education since 2012. Moreover the other Michael had been the architect of radical reform of the kind he justified on the back of the last set of PISA results. 

On Tuesday the OECD published those results. In maths, the UK  ranked 27th down a place since 2012 and in the lowest position since it began participating in Pisa in 2000. In reading, the news is a little better, up to the giddy heights of 22nd, better than the  23rd we managed last time out.. Our most successful subject was science, up from 21st to 15th place - the highest placing since 2006, although with a lower test score.

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So what was Wilshaw talking about? Or Gove and his acolytes as Education Secretary for that matter? Collectively they are the Emperor with no clothes who can see only beautiful designer threads. To call this lot self-delusional is to insult the self deluded. The whole shameful system needs fundamental reform starting with getting rid of the current Ofsted regime which serves no one but its own saprophytic self.

Academisation, free schools, UTCs, and the whole marketization project has been an utter failure. And for Colleges they have been squeezed and starved and pummelled by this same education regime and then expected to pick up the pieces in, for example, English and maths, that Wilshaw’s ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools leave behind. I know one area where the College is repeatedly told it’s not good enough while 90% of its feeder schools are told they are good or outstanding as they produce a GCSE 5A*-C failure rate of quite epic proportions. 

If the UK wants to become truly competitive it needs to reform education by investing more in pre-school, primary and secondary. It needs to create a proper dual system of technical and academic routes provided by all schools up to 18 on a credit based system. It needs to abolish GCSE’s (why matriculate people twice at 16 and 18?). It needs to expand apprenticeship routes at 16 to enable every young person to enjoy both a work-based and academic routes and classroom based technical route to higher education. And colleges should focus on apprenticeship delivery from 16 and classroom technical delivery from 18 in the form of Associate Degree programmes. Finally call all 16-18 stage delivery A levels as John Cridland, former CBI Director General has suggested. A levels are things the public understand. 

Of course little of this system reform is likely under the current government. They will continue to believe selection, more competition and the only good education is the education Eton provides is the answer. And once Wilshaw retires I sincerely hope the new Ofsted satrap will stop publishing drivel and tell the truth about our desperately under-funded school and college system.

Nick Isles is CEO of Corporate Agenda, and advice consultancy

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