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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.

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

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