Learning potential

MorganSally4x3.jpgSally Morgan on heeding the lessons from PISA to deliver quality education and economic growth

Earlier this week, the OECD published its PISA league table of global education, and the UK stayed pretty static in the rankings, stubbornly hovering in the lower section of the top half. This isn’t because everyone is standing still; rather there is improvement happening in many of the countries in the survey. The media reaction was pretty predictable but how should we react, whether as politicians or concerned citizens?

We have a clear choice. We can beat ourselves up, argue or complain that it’s not fair. Or we can look calmly at the lessons to be taken from the PSIA survey and act accordingly. Pessimism or hope? Passivity or action?

No country that wants a dynamic economy can afford to neglect the quality of its education. And no country that is serious about education can afford to neglect the full range of its educational provision – from nursery through to higher education. Weaknesses in one will affect the quality of the next. And the earlier they occur, the greater the negative impact; the harder they will be to rectify. The economic opportunities for the poorly educated are few – and getting scarcer. And the regional disparities are indefensible. 

London stands out (though other places are now improving). 20 years ago, bluntly put, London’s schooling system was a basket case. Inner London’s GCSE results were a third of the national average, and the schools were chaotic with poor behaviour and inadequate teaching. Now the results are above the national average, even though the city has some of Britain’s worst deprivation. London has well-qualified and committed teachers, and great head teachers.  Among disadvantaged children, the bottom 1% in London now match the average GCSE score of their peers in the rest of the country. If it were analysed in the PISA rankings separately, as Shanghai is, London would undoubtedly be much higher up the table than the UK. 

So what happened? A combination of political focus and professional determination that started in the second term of the Blair government.  London Challenge backed those head teachers who focused on achievement regardless of background, who never accepted excuses and never gave up. But it did not support those willing to let things drift. The Challenge team also encouraged heads to share good practice and the intelligent use of data, and crucially to challenge each other. It benefited from other far-sighted initiatives, such as many of the first sponsored academies, Teach First and Future Leaders. Through a combination of practical steps, persistence and strategic imagination it succeeded. And since the Challenge formally ended, the system has continued to improve.

Andreas Schleicher, who is responsible for the PISA study, would highlight much of this as the core features of successful countries. He speaks of the core elements: capacity at point of delivery (great teachers and leaders), zero tolerance of failure, well targeted resources, and a commitment to raising attainment for all. He also highlights the importance of time devoted to learning: that one extra hour of maths a week leads to ¾ year extra progress.

The lesson from Shanghai this week is this: the city/region is engaged in a systematic, long-term project as a way of transforming its economy. As Schleicher has said, “You can see from the Minister down to the classroom teacher that this is their future and they believe education is the great equalizer. That is why they make it prestigious to teach in a tough school.”

We know what it will take to deliver change in all parts of Britain: investment in pre-school, recruitment of great teachers; continuous development; excellent leadership; a focus on numeracy and literacy; and above all, a determination to develop the potential of all students, not just the high performing ones. These things are doable.

Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton is a backbench Labour Peer and Chair of Ofsted

Published 5th December 2013

Do you like this page?


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

The Labour Party will place cookies on your computer to help us make this website better.

Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site.

To find out more about these cookies, see our privacy notice. Use of this site confirms your acceptance of these cookies.