Put PISA in a broader context

The political noise around the 2013 PISA results was much as expected but, as the heat dies down, it is to be hoped that more light will emerge. Sam Freedman’s blog at http://samfreedman1.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/10-things-you-should-know-about-pisa.html is a good start.
First, a cultural contrast. Far East countries do much better in PISA than countries in the West. Cultural factors are clearly coming into play here. The BBC News on 2 December followed a teenage Korean girl through a school day and into crammer school in the evening, ending with the chilling line that she went to bed at 2 a.m. and will get up at 6.30 for another long day of study the next day.
I have visited several Japanese secondary schools and was unimpressed by the quality of teaching or the way in which children were learning during the school day. Generally, the teacher was standing at the front addressing a large class, many of whom were not listening, knowing that they would be doing the real work at the juku in the evening.
I have met nobody in the UK that believes that we should adopt such long hours of work for young people. I know of no research that provides evidence to demonstrate that the quality or quantity of learning is proportional to the time spent in front of the teacher. It is surely far better to have shorter learning hours and concentrate on providing high quality teaching and learning so that the benefit of those hours is maximised and children can have a life outside school.
Second, a curriculum point. Education is about far more that what is tested by PISA. Good independent and state schools in this country have long recognised that the school curriculum is much bigger than the national curriculum and, whatever instructions come down from the government, they want to provide every young person with a fully rounded education that makes them work-ready, life-ready and ready for further learning, as was widely recognised at the recent Whole Education annual conference by John Cridland of the CBI, David Puttnam and many other speakers.
And, whisper it to your colleagues – or shout it from the rooftops – Singapore and other countries at the top of the PISA tables have recognised that PISA only tells part of the story. So they are putting in place national curriculum ideas that promote creativity and other personal qualities and skills that no longer get a mention in the national curriculum in England. As Andreas Schleicher of the OECD – the holder of the PISA flame – wrote in the Times Educational Supplement on 16 November 2012: “Today schooling needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.” Young people need to develop their skills as much as their knowledge, not in isolation, but as the warp and the weft of a fully rounded education.
UK countries need to do better at the subjects that PISA tests, but that is only part of the story. We must not forget that education is part of national culture and that every child deserves a broad and balanced education, as the law of England requires.