The lesson of the PISA results: high performance in education means helping your poorest children

As the top-performing countries in Asia and Europe demonstrate, excellence and equality are not in opposition – they go hand in hand.

Every three years, governments and education departments around the world await the results of a test they did not sit. The publication of the latest PISA results for 2012 – tests taken by 15 year olds across 65 countries in reading, maths and science and published today by the OECD – allow for international comparison on policies that are working well and policies that are perhaps not quite making the grade.

Headlines focus inevitably on the position of countries in the league table – and the UK’s apparent lack of progress is always of concern.  But looking behind the headlines, PISA also paints a picture of just how important tackling educational inequality is.

One message has been further reinforced in these latest results: the countries with the best schools are at the top of the league table in large part because they ensure that their poorest children achieve well at school.  Excellence and equality are not in opposition – they go hand in hand. In all top performing countries – many in East Asia, but also countries such as Canada and Finland – a pupil’s socio-economic background makes comparatively less difference to their ability to achieve well at school.  What is more, many of the countries which have moved up the league table seem to have done so in part because they are delivering better for their poorest children - witness Germany, Turkey and Poland.

PISA also provides some lessons on which policies help combine fairness with overall excellence. As former Michael Gove adviser, Sam Freedman has noted, there is little, if any, evidence that selection is effective and there is strong evidence that the quality of teaching and a high-status teaching profession really matters. But one critical characteristic of the best schools systems in the world is that few children are allowed to fall behind.  They are schools where every child is always "on the agenda" as Michael Barber puts it in his response to the results today. 

Save the Children has recently published research which has highlighted exactly this argument.  We have focused on the critical importance of supporting children – particularly the poorest children – early in primary school. The hard truth is that despite steady progress in recent years (under the coalition and Labour before it), too many children still fail before they have even started in life. 

Our recent report revealed that nearly 80% of the gap in attainment that exists between poor and better-off pupils when they take their GCSEs is already present by the age of seven. And if you are behind at this age, the chances of catching up are slim. Fewer than one in six children from low-income families who are struggling early in primary school will go on to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths.

Looking beyond today's political blame game, there is in fact a big opportunity. All parties are committed to improving the attainment of our poorest pupils: they buy the argument that we must marry equality and excellence – and that this means even more focus on our poorest children. So after we have finished looking backwards, as a country we need to look ahead and ask what it would take to ensure that no child is behind by the end of primary school and all are on the road to success. This should be seen as a great progressive opportunity: it is achievable and would make Britain a significantly fairer country.

Hollie Warren is UK Poverty Policy Adviser on education for Save the Children

Pupils interact with their teachers during class in a primary school in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hollie Warren is UK Poverty Policy Adviser on education for Save the Children

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.