Destination: PISA or ITALY for our children in schools?

Over recent years, the attention given by governments and the media to the outcomes from the international PISA assessments has become pretty intense. These assessments take place every three years, and their focus on the skills of 15 year olds covers Maths, Science and Reading, the latter being the focus for 2018. You can read more here – https://fullfact.org/education/what-you-dont-find-out-about-englands-educational-performance-pisa-league-table/

The English national focus has been on the achievements of both 10/11 and 15/16 year olds (Years 6 and 11), looking at the examination outcomes for English and Maths, and for Year 11 also to include 6 other subjects, one of which could be Literature, the others focussed on 2 sciences, 1/2 humanities, an MFL and one other (known as the EBACC). For state schools completing at the end of Year 6, the SATS outcomes for pupils dominate how the schools themselves are viewed by their inspectorate, Ofsted.  For state secondary pupils, getting the mix of subjects right has also become part of the judgment measure, to ensure the highest score in these 8 subjects to measure progress against the EBACC measure, more of that here.

Over the past 3 years, it’s become very apparent that performance in this explicit DfE measures has become an obsession for most state schools, because they have no opt out and they are judged against their performance as a school by the outcomes in these subjects.  The national and educational media, coupled with Institutes of Education across the country are reporting a groundswell of dissatisfaction of the consequences of this relentless focus to drive up standards so our state school pupils perform  better in comparison with other countries. Some schools are disapplying their weakest pupils as quickly as possible to get them ‘off roll’, others are shutting down the teaching of all other subjects other than English and Maths in the final year of primary school, whilst at secondary school, subjects as diverse as Art, Drama, Music, RS, Technology and Sport are seeing numbers of pupils and teachers spiralling downwards as the subjects don’t carry the same value for the educational league table, if at all.

From pedagogical, philosophical and social mobility stand-points, this is an utter disaster for the children, because it is not permitting them to build domain expertise in sufficient areas that interest them at an appropriate age. Junior children are no longer able to draw accurately, and fear the process because it does not come naturally. Secondary children see creative and athletic disciplines as something they might do at the weekend, competing of course with all the other engagements that adolescents have to content with at the same time. Obviously, if the children are fortunate to go to a performing arts school or specialist sport or technology college, this is not the case, but the practical facts of the matter are that the focus has changed from specialisms to the core, and schools are choosing the same for all of their pupils, despite its obvious lack of merit for their broader educational development.

I have no problem if travellers wish to go to PISA, check out the leaning tower, look around the attached cathedral, get their photo taken holding it up or pushing it down, and sending that image as a postcard back home to prove they got there, bought the T-shirt, dropped the feather and ball from the top of the tower to explore gravity and then come back home. But that focussed journey is not the same as spending rather more time in ITALY, a country of great and diverse representations of culture from Ancient Rome to the present day. Their art, technology, music, drama food and philosophical thinking bursts upon the visitor and engages us in so many more ways, and this takes time, effort and commitment to get the full picture.  In the end, no doubt the tour operators will rub their hands with glee if they can reduce costs by increasing volume to the one city, grow the communication channels by increasing plane, hotel and bus size, with the expertise of the support team reduced to knowing the 10 pages from the guide book and testing same via extensive essay writing and number crunching around the limited palate of knowledge, skills and understanding required to visit PISA and return.

But if we want to develop the kind, caring, supportive, skillful and successful adults to lead the future of our country, they need to be permitted to be more than just tourists to PISA, pursuing a narrow course of study judged primarily by a tick box culture against core standards.  Reductionism of this kind reduces quality, not grows it; read this article published today on the future of Design Technology to see just how challenging the matter has become in a subject which really has to be at the heart of what every school offers its children from 11-14 – https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2018/01/13/saving-design-technology/

We don’t get it all right in the independent sector by any means.  For example in my school, I need to be able to extend the girls programme to bring resistant materials and robotics into the mix, and the boys to add food and textiles. But at least the design experience and skill applications are covered by all pupils in a sustained way for 3 years, and the potential designer/builder has been inspired by age 14. The whole educational country,  be that ITALY, ENGLAND or wherever, needs its landscape explored. Sure, there are fun things to find in PISA, but that’s not enough to nourish and inspire our children.  It’s disappointing that our sector is receiving even greater blame for supporting privilege and elitism, when in our own minds we are doing quite the reverse. Certainly, the development of the whole child and our focus on growing great young adults, with excellent temperaments and a willingness to strive, is of greater importance than exam results.  Conservative minister and minister of health in the House of Lords, James O’Shaughnessy, who spent 4 years at Claires Court as a child spoke with great passion about the development of character education in schools being of paramount importance when he visited us in September last year. I ask the question – what kind of character to you build in a PISA tourist as opposed to a traveller who spends the time and trouble across ITALY?

In short, let’s not encourage educational tourism only to a narrow core band where success is measured through the passing of an exam.  None of us make best friends with people because of their grades, but because they have a much broader knowledge and understanding of who they are and how they fit, and the skills to make their lives all come out well, wherever they find themselves placed as adults in this world. I leave you with the writings of Plato, who was a philosopher in Classical Greece and the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.
I woudl teach children Music = Plato

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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3 Responses to Destination: PISA or ITALY for our children in schools?

  1. Paul Farrell says:

    Excellent article, James. In my travels around schools, I see this reductionism and it makes me very sad. Also, this is the first year in 5 when my teacher training organisation has no secondary music trainee. Can’t be unrelated!

  2. jameswilding says:

    Your comment has made me add a little extra ‘wisdom from Plato’.

  3. Ann Jesseman says:

    If only all schools were given the flexibility to offer what CC children have the opportunity to study. However, sadly this is not case and the Government still thinks one size fits all.

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