We love facts and figures when they say what we like to hear. But what about when they’re bad news?
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For many of us, the end of the year is the time to take stock and reflect on what went well and what could have been better. Perhaps because I worked in the Southern Hemisphere for over half of my teaching career – and the end of the school year coincides with the end of the calendar year there – December has that ‘reckoning’ feel to it. In any case, I think it’s a good time to look back and plan ahead.
Back in December 2016 the PISA report results were out. In case you’ve never heard of this report, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been carrying out these assessments of performance in education every three years since the year 2000. They assess ability in reading, maths and science among 15-year-olds around the world.
Overall, scores for the UK in the 2016 report were lower than in the previous one. But not all is bad: the results also showed that despite the drop, the UK has climbed up the ranks for science (from 21st to 15th place) and reading (from 23rd to 21st place). We have, however, gone down in Maths both in our score as well as in our place in the ranking: from 26th to 27th. The report also confirms that girls are still outperforming boys academically.
Swings and roundabouts, you’d think. We need to focus more on Maths and boys, and keep doing whatever it is that we’re doing well in science and reading, right?
You see, statistics such as the PISA results are relative to the performance of other countries. What the report unquestionably tells us is that the levels of education in the UK across the board are going down.
These results need to be put into a bigger context. According to the World Economic Forum (March, 2017) the UK’s economy ranks 5th in the world. In comparison, China, the world’s second biggest economy, were ranked in the PISA top 12 for reading, maths and science. But PISA results have little to do with population or the size of the country’s economy, in case you were wondering: Estonia is also in the top 12 for all three subjects. As is Canada. Brazil, 9th economy in the world, is nowhere near the PISA top 20 in any subject. Neither is the USA, by the way, despite being the world’s biggest economy.
Some might say that if there’s no correlation between the size of a country’s economy and the level of education of its population, then why the fuss? We should be fine even if 20% of our adults have the reading ability of a 5-year-old (National Literacy Trust, 2017), right?
In the UK, the future is not looking good. We are the only developed country where 55-to-65 year-olds outperform 16-to-24 year-olds in literacy (OECD, 2017). This could mean that the economic future of the country is not as bright as it may seem: how long will we be able to maintain the 5th place in the world’s economy if our workers are semi-illiterate? According to KMPG (2009), low levels of literacy among the workforce costs the UK taxpayer £2.5 billion every year. That figure could have increased already.
But fretting about the future is pointless. And it’s no use blaming the government, schools, the new generations or technology. We need to have a plan.
It is quite simple: turn off your phone, laptop, TV and talk to your child. Read with them. Involve them in basic maths when you go shopping. The opportunities to develop maths and literacy skills abound. They are life skills.
Anyone involved in the life of a young person has a role to play. Children who can work things out for themselves are happier and will become more successful adults. PISA results show that the adults of the future might struggle unless we do something about it. Let’s make that our New Year Resolution. Here’s to a bright 2018!
Our guest blogger is a teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.