'Don’t leap to conclusions from league tables'

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One of Britain’s leading academics has cast doubts on the efficacy of international league tables, claiming they are misleading and do not provide the whole picture of how well a country is achieving.

One of Britain’s leading academics has cast doubts on the efficacy of international league tables, claiming they are misleading and do not provide the whole picture of how well a country is achieving.

Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said the tables – often cited by ministers in education debates and when announcing key policy changes – were inconsistent and should be treated with caution.

The study, carried out for the Sutton Trust, found that variations in England’s performance were down to the way statistics were presented and which countries were participating, rather than any major fluctuations in pupil or school performance.

Prof Smithers looked at several international tables including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which compares performance in maths, science and reading among 15-year-olds; the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which analyses maths and science results at ages 9 to 10 and 13 to 14; and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which examines reading among 10-year-olds.

He found that apparent differences in global tables could be attributed to three factors – variations in the countries represented, differences in the aspects of literacy, numeracy and science being tested, and the fact a lot of emphasis could be placed on small differences in performance between countries.

The latest PISA league tables – produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – place England equal 23rd in reading, equal 27th in maths, and 16th in science out of 65 countries, while a recent global index prepared for Pearson by the Economist Intelligence Unit placed England 6th of 40 countries.

Prof Smithers concluded that when omission and aspects such as differences in the aims of tests were taken into account some surveys “despite appearances, give more or less the same result”.

The report said that there are five countries or territories – Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan – that generally out-perform England in all the tables. On PISA, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Germany and Canada also do better than England. Finland also usually performs better than England, though did not do so in the 2011 TIMSS maths test.

The differences in rankings reflect an increase in participating countries and a more representative sample in English schools rather than any change in performance.

Prof Smithers added: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from these analyses it is: don’t leap to conclusions from the league tables. The superior performance of Asian pupils has been attributed to a culture of hard work and effort, the personality trait of quiet persistence, and distinctive parenting. There may not be a magic bullet from these countries which can be incorporated into England’s education system, and we may do better to look at those European countries that do well in PISA to learn the lessons of their success.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “Global education tables have become an increasingly important tool in the political debate in Britain but league table rankings are not always what they seem. We need to focus on reducing social segregation which is greater in England than almost all other OECD countries, and to improve teaching standards across the board.”


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