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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.