So much of the education debate is about how UK schools perform relative to those in other countries – this week Liz Truss reported back from her visit to Shanghai – so when MPs on the Education Select Committee grilled Andreas Schleicher, the Deputy Director of the OECD which ranks education systems worldwide, they were keen to find out what his data suggests is causing the gap in performance between children in UK schools and those in cities such as Shanghai and countries such as Singapore.

Schleicher made a number of interesting points about our education system which are worth mulling:

1. Even the vast improvements in London schools haven’t brought them up to the standard of far east education systems. 

Some of the Labour MPs on the committee – and Liberal Democrat David Ward – were grizzling about the way the OECD makes its comparisons. Schleicher told the committee that the organisation compares children from similar backgrounds so that an education system’s impact on deprivation can be properly studied, rather than results simply reflecting the affluence of the various countries in question. But he was asked by Ward whether it was unfair that the whole UK education system was being compared to that of one city state when it was measured against Shanghai. He replied:

‘We have encouraged the UK actually to collect separate data for London like many countries have [for their large cities] already. We believe that’s an interesting dimension to look at, to compare the performance of large cities.

‘I would still, this is a guess that I make now but I would still think that you would find a very large difference between Shanghai and the City of London. Probably London would outperform the rest of the country, I think there’s good national data for that, when I look at your national data, you’re not going to be anywhere close to some of the city states. But I think it’s an interesting comparison that I think is well worth pursuing.’

Labour’s London Challenge policy improved school standards in the capital, and one of the things the party tends to take from its success is that collaboration between schools is much more effective than competition. But Schleicher seemed to think that this was a false dichotomy, arguing that competition between schools to become the most desirable institution for parents to send their children didn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t also collaborate.

2. Focusing on class size doesn’t make the difference that some might think.

Classroom numbers are something Labour politicians in particular have referred to as a sign of their party’s investment in education and the Tories’ neglect of the sector. But Schleicher argued that it was more cost effective to invest in professional development of teachers or get better quality teachers by paying better salaries. He said:

‘One of the most interesting findings from our Pisa study is that most or many high performing education systems in Europe–but also in Asia–prioritise the quality of teaching over the size of class. In the last 15 years the UK has gone exactly the opposite way. Most of the resources have gone into lowering class sizes, not so much has gone into raising quality of teaching. In Asia you see very large classes and you find teachers, in fact, because of the demographic changes in Japan for example, class sizes have become smaller… and teachers tell you this is a problem: I no longer have the diversity of views and ideas in my classroom to actually do the type of instruction that I want to do. The capacity of teachers to embrace diversity in the population, to personalise teaching.’

He wouldn’t go so far as to say that larger class sizes made for a better education, though, but he added:

‘If you have one pound extra to spend our data suggests that the least effective way to spend that pound is to decrease class sizes. You’re much better off investing this in a) sort of more attractive career structures including better salaries or b) more opportunities for professional development.’

3. It’s not teaching unions that are the barrier to improving standards, but the way teaching unions behave.

Schleicher observed that some countries with very strong teaching unions can still drive up standards in schools because the unions are ‘operating more like professional bodies’. When government and unions can work together, then school standards rise, he said. He rather amused the committee chair Graham Stuart by arguing that ‘every education system gets the union it deserves’. Stuart retorted: ‘We’ve done something very badly wrong in that case’.

4. Countries whose education standards have slipped do not have sufficient levels of accountability for their schools.

The Committee is currently running an inquiry on academies and free schools, and members were interested in whether autonomy in itself meant schools could fall behind. Schleicher argued that the problem in Swedish schools was not that they had freedom, but that they didn’t have the necessary oversight to pick up when things were going wrong. As Fraser argued in his Telegraph column last week, free schools in this country don’t have much time to collect their breath before being shut down when things start to go wrong.

Tags: Education, Liz Truss, Maths, OECD, PISA