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

Screengrab from Telegraph video
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The Telegraph’s bizarre list of 100 reasons to be happy about Brexit

“Old-fashioned light bulbs”, “crooked cucumbers”, and “new vocabulary”.

As the economy teeters on the verge of oblivion, and the Prime Minister grapples with steering the UK around a black hole of political turmoil, the Telegraph is making the best of a bad situation.

The paper has posted a video labelled “100 reasons to embrace Brexit”. Obviously the precise number is “zero”, but that didn’t stop it filling the blanks with some rather bizarre reasons, floating before the viewer to an inevitable Jerusalem soundtrack:

Cheap tennis balls

At last. Tennis balls are no longer reserved for the gilded eurocrat elite.

Keep paper licences

I can’t trust it unless I can get it wet so it disintegrates, or I can throw it in the bin by mistake, or lose it when I’m clearing out my filing cabinet. It’s only authentic that way.

New hangover cures

What?

Stronger vacuums

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to hoover up dust by inhaling close to the carpet.

Old-fashioned light bulbs

I like my electricals filled with mercury and coated in lead paint, ideally.

No more EU elections

Because the democratic aspect of the European Union was something we never obsessed over in the run-up to the referendum.

End working time directive

At last, I don’t even have to go to the trouble of opting out of over-working! I will automatically be exploited!

Drop green targets

Most people don’t have time to worry about the future of our planet. Some don’t even know where their next tennis ball will come from.

No more wind farms

Renewable energy sources, infrastructure and investment – what a bore.

Blue passports

I like my personal identification how I like my rinse.

UK passport lane

Oh good, an unadulterated queue of British tourists. Just mind the vomit, beer spillage and flakes of sunburnt skin while you wait.

No fridge red tape

Free the fridge!

Pounds and ounces

Units of measurement are definitely top of voters’ priorities. Way above the economy, health service, and even a smidgen higher than equality of tennis ball access.

Straight bananas

Wait, what kind of bananas do Brexiteers want? Didn’t they want to protect bendy ones? Either way, this is as persistent a myth as the slapstick banana skin trope.

Crooked cucumbers

I don’t understand.

Small kiwi fruits

Fair enough. They were getting a bit above their station, weren’t they.

No EU flags in UK

They are a disgusting colour and design. An eyesore everywhere you look…in the uh zero places that fly them here.

Kent champagne

To celebrate Ukip cleaning up the east coast, right?

No olive oil bans

Finally, we can put our reliable, Mediterranean weather and multiple olive groves to proper use.

No clinical trials red tape

What is there to regulate?

No Turkey EU worries

True, we don’t have to worry. Because there is NO WAY AND NEVER WAS.

No kettle restrictions

Free the kettle! All kitchen appliances’ lives matter!

Less EU X-factor

What is this?

Ditto with BGT

I really don’t get this.

New vocabulary

Mainly racist slurs, right?

Keep our UN seat

Until that in/out UN referendum, of course.

No EU human rights laws

Yeah, got a bit fed up with my human rights tbh.

Herbal remedy boost

At last, a chance to be treated with medicine that doesn’t work.

Others will follow [picture of dominos]

Hooray! The economic collapse of countries surrounding us upon whose trade and labour we rely, one by one!

Better English team

Ah, because we can replace them with more qualified players under an Australian-style points-based system, you mean?

High-powered hairdryers

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to dry my hair by yawning on it.

She would’ve wanted it [picture of Margaret Thatcher]

Well, I’m convinced.

I'm a mole, innit.