Category Archives: International


The US Sanders and Rivers study still has legs and is  often referenced


An extensive and highly influential 1996 US study in Tennessee, by William Sanders and June Rivers , found, interalia, that ‘ Differences in student achievement of fifty  percentile  points were observed as a result of teacher sequence   after only three years.’

‘The effects on student achievement are both additive and cumulative with little evidence of compensatory effects.’ ‘Groups of students with comparable abilities   and initial achievement levels may have vastly different outcomes as a result of the sequence of teachers to which they are assigned’.  ‘Regardless of initial achievement level teachers in the top quintile facilitated desirable academic progress  in all students’ …Whereas,  ‘regardless of their  entering achievement levels  students under the tutelage of teachers in the bottom quintile  made unsatisfactory gains’…

In short, ‘The single most dominant factor affecting student academic gain is teacher effect’   Bad teachers do  retard the academic development of students. Its hardly rocket science , but the days when you state the ‘obvious’ without reference to evidence are long gone.

Cumulative and Residual effects of Teachers  on future student academic achievement



UP 24% in 5 years

The cost of sending a child to private school in the UK has risen by 24 per cent in the past five years, according to a new survey commissioned by Lloyds Bank .

The survey  found some concerns among parents that they will not be able to afford the cost of tuition in coming years.  However, the vast majority of those polled said their final decision about which school to send their child to was not ­motivated by cost. One wonders for how long this will continue.

The FT recently pointed out that a private school education is soaring out of the reach of the professional classes whose income is not even remotely keeping pace with the rise in fees. These striving, financially stressed parents are now dubbed ‘cling-ons’.  It is estimated that sending two children to a private school from the age of 4 to 18 currently costs an average of £610,000. One example, given by the FT, by no means untypical it seems, is Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, a co-educational private day  school, where  day fees shot up 49 per cent in real terms in the years between 2003 and 2013. Day schools are less expensive than boarding schools, and last year there was a fall in the number of pupils attending boarding schools.

Even the top 1 per cent of earners – among the group the FT has named the über-middles, composed of people such as doctors, lawyers and bankers – have seen only a 9 per cent rise over the decade, opening up a big gap between the increases in school fees and in their own earnings. Many parents are now seeking  ingenious ways of  alleviating the burden of fee payments using various tax efficient payment schemes, often with the help of schools.

Tatler the up market style magazine, which targets middle class, aspirational readers, is now highlighting good state schools as the financial pressures take their toll on its readers.

The main pressure on fees comes from teachers pay and pensions in the independent sector.  There will always be demand for private education, and places in the best schools can always be filled by pupils from abroad. But most schools seek a balanced intake and don’t want to be filled exclusively with pupils from abroad. However, if UK parents are finding it harder and harder to raise the fees, it seems likely that over the longer term families who have for generations sent their children to private schools will look to the state sector, and the independent sector will find it harder to entice UK born children through their doors. Currently around 7% of children go to private school, although in London  its closer to 12% ,and 18 % pupils over the age of 16 are  privately educated.


1 Overseas pupils made  up 5.1% of the total ISC pupil population in

2 One payment scheme to ease the burden   sees parents paying  their children’s school fees upfront as a lump sum — anything from a term to several years’ worth  The school will take the money and invest it in low-risk investments. Any profit the school makes is tax-free because of their charitable status (ie they have to have charitable status to benefit from this scheme). The school then splits the benefit with the parents. Those parents are given what the schools class as a discount based on the profit the school makes from the investment. And the school keeps whatever is left over.


What Got You Here Won’t Get You There


Leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith says  that the very traits that enabled you to become   a successful leader  in the first place might, paradoxically, ultimately  lead to your downfall. He  suggested to leaders  that ‘what got you here wont get you there’.

Now that you are a leader, your behavioural quirks and weaknesses take on more weight and significance, and can do more harm than they could when you were an up-and-comer. The premise is that by continuing to do what we are doing we will not  be likely to  move to the next level.  We may, of course, enjoy continued success  but if we stop doing some things and start doing other things, there’s a better chance for even greater effectiveness and a higher level of success. Charles Handy in his book the Empty Raincoat (1995) expressed it as the paradox of success: ‘what got you where you are, won’t keep you where you are, is a hard lesson to learn.’ (page 58)

Lessons here maybe for some school leaders?




Huron surveys look at what choices the richest Chinese are making

UK Secondary  education rated above US

The Hurun Report  which surveys the choices and preferences of  the Chinese elite – also publishes  ‘The Best of British Education . The Best of British Education  is part of the Schools Guide Series, and is targeted at affluent Chinese parents intending to send their children to boarding schools and universities in the UK. Hurun. Report Founder and Director of the Schools Guide Series, Rupert Hoogewerf said, “British boarding schools are leaders of elite education across in the world, and are greatly acknowledged by Chinese entrepreneurs” In 2011, more than 50,000 UK student visas were issued by the UK Border Agency/Home Office in China, an increase of 20% from 2010. British boarding (secondary) schools are the first choice for Chinese entrepreneurs seeking an international education for their children. (the US is second)

The most recent consumer survey  found that 28.7% prefer UK as destination to educate children at high school level (secondary), slightly ahead of the US at 26%. 36% favour US for undergraduate and above education

The Schools Guide Series is an extensive and growing collection of guides, which provide Chinese parents  ‘with unrivalled insight into the education systems of seven countries, including the UK, US, Canada, Singapore, Australia & New Zealand and Switzerland with Hong Kong on its way this year.’

The top two concerns for the Chinese entrepreneur is their child’s education and leading a healthier life. 4 out of 5 millionaires in China are considering sending their child overseas to study and among industry experts, it is accepted that sending a child abroad is often the first step to much greater investment.

TEL:+86 (0)21 5010 5808 ADD:6F, Zhongrong Jasper Tower, 8 Yincheng Road, Pudong, Shanghai 200120, China




Time to move away from the Factory model of schooling, says Professor Mehta


Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the author of the book “The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling.”

He makes the familiar claims  in his book that the way schools are organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn’t changed much in the century since the ‘Progressive Era’. His proposition is that the US still has the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support.(Professor Ken Robinson has said much the same thing, as has Anthony Seldon here)

He writes in the New York Times ‘Call it the industrial-factory model: power resides at the top, with state and district officials setting goals, providing money and holding teachers accountable for realizing predetermined ends. While rational on its face, in practice this system does not work well because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like teaching that require considerable skill and discretion.’

This echos concerns, shared by other educators, that the teaching profession, rather than improving its status, is being de-professionalised. Unions have little influence in shaping policy and have failed to raise the status of the profession.

Mehta  continues ‘Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.’ Some of these arguments are being used by those in the UK who advocate a new professional body for teachers (Royal College of Teaching etc).

By these criteria, his conclusion is   that American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or non-existent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance (and development). It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

The top systems recruit the top graduates (Investing in Human capital -see Professor Hargreaves and Fullan on this)). Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than elsewhere.

In America, both major teachers’ unions and the organization representing state education officials have, in the past year, called for raising the bar for entering teachers; one of the unions, the American Federation of Teachers, advocates a “bar exam.” Ideally the exam should not be a one-time paper-and-pencil test, like legal bar exams, but a phased set of milestones to be attained over the first few years of teaching. Akin to medical boards, they would require prospective teachers to demonstrate subject and pedagogical knowledge — as well as actual teaching skill.

He continues ‘Tenure would require demonstrated knowledge and skill, as at a university or a law firm. A rigorous board exam for teachers could significantly elevate the quality of candidates, raise and make more consistent teacher skill level, improve student outcomes, and strengthen the public’s regard for teachers and teaching.

We let doctors operate, pilots fly, and engineers build because their fields have developed effective ways of certifying that they can do these things. Teaching, on the whole, lacks this specialized knowledge base; teachers teach based mostly on what they have picked up from experience and from their colleagues.’

The ‘Allure of Order’, explores the power of ideas  in shaping politics. When a new paradigm arises “Newspapers, legislative debates, and other forums where issues are debated and decided take up issues different from those they did before. Existing actors’ identities are reshaped as the new problem definition changes the way people think about an issue. … New actors and groups are also created.”

But, unlike a number of current narratives on the problems of education, Mehta goes further by offering guidance for the route to universal good schools. He discusses four elements needed for a successful school system:

 practice-relevant knowledge,

 strong human capital, (Hargreaves and Fullan etc )

 school-level processes of improvement, and

 external support and accountability.

He ends by looking for new institutions to try new approaches and old institutions to reform themselves: “We can only hope that they have learned from the lessons of the past and seek not to control but to empower, creating the infrastructure upon which talented practitioner can create the good schools of the future.”

The changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy, he admits. They will require money, political will and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine. But failure to change will be more costly — we could look up in another 30 years and find ourselves, once again, no better off than we are today. Several of today’s top performers, like South Korea, Finland and Singapore, moved to the top of the charts in one generation. Real change in America is possible, but only, he says, if they stop tinkering at the margins.

Its interesting how many of the perceptions about what needs to change in the United States are shared by educators here in the UK when championing the need  for reform. There is a consensus building here that a new professional body is required to elevate the status of the profession, independent of  both unions and government.;jsessionid=985C8A681F1ABEA4DBBE353E3C9D56FB?cc=gb&lang=en&


Successful systems invest and reinvest in their professional capital

Professional capital has three components Human, Social, and Decisional


Speaking to an audience of Teachers at the SSATs annual conference in Manchester, last week, Professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan focused on the need to invest in  Professional Capital. They reminded the audience that there are two types of  Capital -business and professional capital. If you don’t invest in  both types of capital you will not get, and cannot expect,  a return.

Professional Capital is, of course, about the qualities and talents of individuals.  But its actually about much more than this. You can’t accumulate much human capital by focusing just on the capital of individuals. Essentially you have three mutually reinforcing   components  that make up this Professional capital –Human, Social and Decisional. Not only do you need to have these elements in place but you need to develop and invest in them to improve, specifically your education system.  And Professional capital, and this is key, needs to be circulated and shared. No silos here.

 Human Capital is about individual talent. You need highly able and talented teachers in the profession who are highly qualified.  And you need to invest in them. But you cannot simply rely on talented individuals to drive improvements across the system. Indeed the claim that the education system cannot be better than the individual teachers in that system is at best a half-truth.

 Human capital must be complemented by Social Capital—groups working hard in focused and committed ways to bring about substantial improvements. Social Capital can raise individual human capital—a good team, school, or system lifts everyone. But, as we often see in sports, higher individual human capital—a few brilliant stars—does not necessarily improve the overall team. Working with  other good teachers in effective ways really will mean that the quality of the education system adds up to more than the quality of individual teachers.  

 The third component—Decisional Capital—involves making decisions in complex situations on innumerable occasions with different problems challenges and cases- the ability and capacity to make discretional judgments . Good teachers use their professional judgement.  It is what professionalism is all about, especially when well-qualified professionals do this together. Like judges, after many years of practice and analyzing that practice and lots of case examples (Common Law) with others, teachers and other professionals know how to assess situations effectively. The evidence helps, but it’s never incontrovertible. In teaching as in  law, it’s the capacity to judge that makes the difference in the end.  Experienced well trained teachers and better placed than others to have decisional capital.  And Hargreaves reminded the audience  there is no book to tell you what to do in innumerable cases.  Professionals have to decide informed by their experience.

 When the vast majority of teachers possess the power of professional capital, they become smart and talented, committed and collegial, thoughtful and wise. Their moral purpose is expressed in their relentless, expert-driven pursuit of serving their students and their communities and always learning how to do better. Those few colleagues who persistently fall short of the mark eventually will not be tolerated by peers who see them as letting down their profession and students.

 High-performing countries use professional capital in their approach to the teaching profession. They don’t pick on, praise, or punish a few individuals. Instead, they get better and better by using a strategy that develops and retains all of their high-quality teachers and moves them all forward together.

 There were a number of  key messages being delivered here by Professor Hargreaves and Fullan. Here are just some:   

 First, of all the factors inside a school that affect children’s learning and achievement the most important is the teacher-not standards, assessments, resources or even the schools leadership but the quality of the teacher.

 Secondly, teachers and administrators must break down the classroom isolation and convert teaching into a more collaborative, and collegial profession.  Good collegiality—social capital—is supportive and also demanding. Peer-driven change should be about pulling people into exciting changes and sometimes also pushing and nudging them beyond what they perceive as their limits, for their own and their students’ benefit. And in this respect they need to know what works best and evaluate their collaborative activity, to ensure it is adding value and improving student outcomes.

 Thirdly, Social capital is more important than individual human capital because it generates human capital faster, among all teachers and for every child. Leaders have immense power with social capital to strengthen their school communities, develop greater trust, and build more effective professional collaboration—to raise the social capital in the school that develops their students’ human capital in the future.

 Fourthly we need to concentrate on moving the entire profession forward instead of obsessing about the extremes in the field by celebrating the stars and dismissing the duds.

 Finally ,mid-career (from about eight-years-plus) is where teachers are considered to be at their peak in commitment and enthusiasm, but where they tend to be most overlooked. We need to use pay accelerators (steps up in pay), professional learning incentives, high quality CPD,and multiple career paths to invest in keeping most of our teachers in classrooms for four to eight years at least and to take better advantage of their growing decisional capital and expertise.

 But what about the role of  Governments?  Their message is clear,  on this.  Politicians need to demonstrate courage and faith in investing in long-term professional capital among all teachers for everyone’s achievement, rather than pursuing short-term  ‘business-capital’ interests that reduce the cost and tenure of teachers, pit them against one another, and replace them with online alternatives in order to get a quick financial return. You do not improve professional capital by diminishing teachers judgment and professionalism, nor by employing less qualified people to teach.   Some Government policies , they claim, are driven by the imperatives of  ‘business’ rather than ‘ professional’ capital which  takes a shorter term view and is more interested in quick returns. 

 Countries that have invested in the professional capital of their teachers, and their students are reaping the benefits.  (ie implicitly  not so much  the US and UK, more Finland, South Korea , Singapore). So think about teaching in terms of the creation and circulation and the investment and reinvestment of professional capital. Governments can create good or bad climates, or enabling environments (and they have a heavy responsibility here),  to advance investment in professional capital. But it is something that must be acquired, spread and reinvested mainly  by teachers themselves, individually and together.   


Michael Fullan is a professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Andy Hargreaves holds the Thomas More Brennan chair in education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. They are the co-authors of Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (Teachers College Press, Routledge  2012).


Stagnating but some encouragement in science

But many worry about the Pisa league tables while admiring the data generated


Governments around the world waited – some eagerly, but most rather anxiously – for the latest results of the PISA survey, on 3rd December.

PISA represents an ambitious and expensive, large-scale attempt to measure and compare literacy in reading, mathematics and science in a large number of countries. The first PISA survey was launched in 2000, and it has since been followed up with surveys in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012.

Many concerns have been raised concerning the comparability of educational test results from different countries in general and in particular with the difficulties in producing items that are culturally and linguistically neutral.

According to the latest PISA report, (3 December) England’s performance in mathematics, science and reading has remained stable since PISA 2006. In each survey, pupils in England have performed similarly to the OECD average in mathematics and reading and significantly better than the OECD average in science. This is in contrast to a number of other countries which have seen gains and losses. For example, Singapore, Macao-China, Estonia, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and Romania have shown significant improvements in mathematics, science and reading since 2009, whereas Finland, New  Zealand, Iceland, the Slovak Republic and Sweden have shown significant declines in all three  subjects during the same period. However, average scores give only part of the picture. In all three subjects, England has a relatively large difference in the performance of lowest and highest achievers; this is greater than the OECD average.

Pisa reports generate a wealth of data which is undeniably useful and important. Although most of the publicity surrounding Pisa results focuses on the league tables that seeks to rate countries education systems, based on the tests covering literacy numeracy and science. Those who fare badly in the tables suffer what’s termed ‘ Pisa shock’ . Roughly half of the governments affected  change their policies  in response to the PISA results. In short, its very influential.

Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD, claims that world economy will not pay you for what you know, but rather for what you do with that knowledge and how you apply it. And that is what is behind data and the whole Pisa testing regime.  But  some  academics  challenge the methodology used by the OECD , claiming that the league tables are too crude to be of much use, though most  concede that much of the data generated in this process  can be very  useful.

Professor Stephen Heppell, in this country, has been a long term critic of its methodology. Prais (2003), Goldstein (2004), Brown (2007), and Hopmann, Brinek & Retzl (2007) have also raised very specific concerns over the methodology.  Svend Kreiner and Hugh Morrison have raised concerns too. Kreiners view is that PISA officials claim either that they know about the problems, that the problems have been solved or that their analyses show that the rankings provided by PISA are robust to the model  errors.  But he counters ‘The truths of such claims are not supported by evidence in the technical reports and our results suggest that the ranking is far from robust. If they want to restore the credibility of their results, it is PISA’s obligation to produce the evidence supporting their claims.’ Morrison says ‘the OECD’s claims in  respect of its PISA project have scant validity given the central dependence of these claims on  the clear separability of ability from the items designed to measure that ability.’

PISA’s comparison of countries relies on plausible student scores derived from the so called Rasch model. In short, pupils are not given identical questions but this is ironed out by the model which seeks to remove  ‘contextual’ features. This begs the question whether or not this   scaling model is reliable and consistent. In layman’s terms is PISA comparing like with like?  However Some significant doubts have been raised, in this  sensitive area, with the Rasch model criticised, or at least the way the OECD uses the Rasch model.

We already know that the ranking system can be misleading, as more and more countries join the rating system and some high performers dip in, and out. Some countries don’t take part at all. Also, statistically insignificant differences between countries performances  have often been exaggerated in order to generate a headline .Even Schleicher has urged politicians to be cautious in using the evidence to justify policies (they tend to cherry pick and miss important nuances in order to get their basic message  across – ie we are failing by international standards)

John Jerrim of the IOE ,who has himself raised concerns over PISA,  says that criticisms that imply its useless as a benchmark  are  a  ‘gross exaggeration’.  While conceding  that a  number of valid points have been raised, and point to various ways in which PISA may be improved (the need for PISA to become a panel dataset – following children throughout school – raised by Harvey Goldstein is a particularly important point, according to Jerrim).  And he accepts that no data or test is perfect, particularly when it is tackling a notoriously difficult task such as cross-country comparisons, and that includes PISA. But he says ‘to suggest it cannot tell us anything important or useful is very far wide of the mark. For instance, if one were to believe that PISA did not tell us anything about children’s academic ability, then it should not correlate very highly with our own national test measures. But this is not the case.’

Cambridge University statistics professor David Spiegelhalter investigated Pisa  for the BBC recently.He talked   to leading academics in the world of education including Svend Kreiner in Copenhagen, Harvey Goldstein at Bristol  Oxford’s Jenny Ozga and Professor Alan Smithers of  Buckingham University  . His conclusion? The  League tables are essentially misleading and unreliable  although the data produced by the PISA  exercise is useful.

Professor Alan Smithers, looking at the maths questions says  all the  questions  have a picture or graph attached to them  but  don’t  really cover mathematical understanding in any depth . And he made the important point   that the OECD cannot possibly  know,  for sure, that if pupils do well in a certain test then   that is due to their  schools system. It could  in fact be due in Japans ,Singapores and South Koreas cases, for example , to  the extra tuition pupils receive  outside the school  classroom. Pisa doesnt control for this private tuition.

The NFER plays down the rankings. It doesn’t like to report on rank because it  says it has  some issues with the data .

Indeed, even Andreas Schleicher believes that both the 2000 and 20003 results should not be used for comparison purposes,  because of data shortcomings although this hasn’t stopped our media and politicians from doing so.

England’s latest Pisa results show we have stagnated.. The education secretary  was quick to argue  that the results are a “judgment on the past not the present” because the 15-year-olds who sat the most recent tests had been educated for nine years of their schooling under a Labour government and only two years under the coalition. He seemed to be backed in this by Schleicher  who says that we will have to wait until 2015 results to take a view on the effects of the reforms.

Meanwhile, Sir John Rowling, of the Performance in Excellence (PiXL) Club, says PISA tests are so politically important that pupils should specifically prepare for them. He argues that if we regard the PISA rating as serious, then we should take the tests  seriously, and prepare pupils properly for them .The PiXL club is a group of some 800 schools dedicated to boosting pupils’ exam performance at A-level and GCSE. Sir John suggests that England may be losing out because other countries take the tests much more seriously and do more to ensure that pupils perform well. The former headteacher says one solution would be at least to familiarise pupils with the style of the tests.

He told BBC News that because the tests are taken by a minority of pupils they are not taken seriously and “nobody bothers”.

“It all seems so far away it doesn’t seem to matter – but when politicians get hold of the results it matters a great deal.” But then there is a counter argument that preparing for PISA  tests surely rather defeats their object .And encourages teaching to the (PISA) test. Indeed, Sam Freedman, who championed PISA as an adviser to Gove, thinks that any country specifically preparing their children for tests, should be banned from participating in PISA.   But, then again, if you think that PISA tests are assessing things that are worthwhile assessing and it has such political consequences, it makes sense to prepare your pupils for it.

But there is no hiding official’s disappointment in the latest results.   And Professor Alison Wolf  said “We did badly last time and statistically we have done no better this time. She continued “It is not just about better teachers, it is also about the home environment.“If you are growing up in Seoul or Shanghai, you go home from school to a family that cares desperately about education, no matter what its social standing is. British parents are simply not as aware of how important education is.”

Labour hailed a strong performance in 2000 as a triumphant vindication of its education policies, including the multi-billion pound literacy and numeracy strategies.(which ended in 2010). But this perceived success was  short lived, despite impressive levels of investment.

Britain’s position has worsened.  This governments reforms have, in this first phase, concentrated on structural reforms which, by themselves, were never going to improve Pisa ratings ,even over the longer term. Reforms to the curriculum, assessment and raising the quality of teaching (through, for example better selection, training and CPD) when combined with structural reforms, could have an impact. But it will take several more years for us to see the effects.

We probably can’t very accurately (the language and cultural issues alone raises big challenges),rank students across countries, as if all have sat identical  questions at the same time, in an identical context. Because they haven’t. And the Rasch model is not unchallenged

And its odd that the media simply ignore the alternative TIMMS study, and its results, which seek to measure ‘factual’ knowledge among students in different systems. Both the UK and the US  consistently   do better in TIMMS  than PISA. (the US stagnated in PISA too)

There are no grounds for complacency on our PISA performance. Stagnation is not good and raises many questions on the policy front. But there are no reasons to panic either Its worth noting that  that some of those  whom we have most admired in the past including Finland ,  are actually in long term  decline, according to Pisa. We might be in a better place come 2015 but there are a number of countries new to Pisa  that are improving rapidly ,who could overtake us.


Maybe not


It may come as some surprise to educators here, but their counterparts in Finland are not as excited   about the high ranking afforded to Finlands schools by PISA studies ,as they are. Many teachers and Heads there, in truth, are slightly embarrassed about all the fuss,   partly because they are aware of weaknesses in their system, and partly because they think that PISA measures only a narrow band of the spectrum of school learning.  Finnish practitioners like many here, realise the danger and the consequences of teaching to the  test, rather than to learn and understand.

Gabriel Sahlgren, a Swedish academic working for the centre right think tank CMRE,  shares the view that Finland’s education system is by no means perfect. Writing in a Spectator blog, earlier this year ,he pointed out that while Finland scores well on PISA, this particular league table is actually designed to test everyday rather than curriculum-based knowledge. This means that it lacks key concepts of importance for further studies in mathematically intensive subjects, such as engineering, computer science, and economics. This is an obvious defect: such subjects are likely to be crucial for developed countries’ future economic well-being. He continues ‘The Finnish fan club rarely talks about its mathematics performance in TIMSS, an international survey focusing more on curriculum-based knowledge – which plummeted over the last decade. Finnish eighth-graders today perform slightly lower than seventh-graders did in 1999, lagging the top-scoring nations by a considerable margin.’ Not so miraculous, after all, suggests Sahlgren. It’s perhaps not surprising, he says, that over 200 Finnish academics in 2005 warned about complacency as a result of the PISA success. Others questioned whether it represents a victory at all since important ‘knowledge’ had been sacrificed along the way.

It is also the case that the number of young  people in Finland obtaining higher education degrees is not growing at the same pace as in many other developed nations.

In spring 2012, the Helsinki University Centre for Educational Assessment implemented a nationally representative assessment of ninth grade students’ learning to learn competence. The assessment was inspired by signs of declining results in the past few years’ assessments. This decline had been observed both in the subject specific assessments of the Finnish National Board of Education, in the OECD PISA 2009 study, and in the learning to learn assessment implemented by the Centre for Educational Assessment in all comprehensive schools in Vantaa in 2010.

As Pasi Sahlberg points out ‘The change between the year 2001 and year 2012 is significant. The level of students’ attainment has in fact declined considerably. The difference can be compared to a decline of Finnish students’ attainment in PISA reading literacy from the 539 points of PISA 2009 to 490 points, to below the OECD average. A decline could be discerned both among the best and the weakest students.’

It is also the case that  between 2000 and 2009 Finnish students in the lowest socio-economic category (Group 1) fell an astonishing 31% ,in Reading.


University of Helsinki – Faculty of Behavioral Sciences, Department of Teacher of Education Research Report No 347 Authors: Jarkko Hautamäki, Sirkku Kupiainen, Jukka Marjanen, Mari-Pauliina Vainikainen and Risto Hotulainen

Learning to learn at the end of basic education: Results in 2012 and changes from 2001

14/11/2013 Link to the study (in Finnish) here


Interventions from early childhood onwards can improve character according to new research

Character skills rival IQ


We rely an awful lot on achievement tests in our schools. They are used to sift and sort people, to evaluate schools, and to assess the performance of entire nations (PISA etc). But new research from the States finds that school achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success.

For example, adolescent achievement test scores only explain about 15% of the variance in later-life earnings.  So its unlikely that measurement error accounts for most of the remaining variance. Something very fundamental is missing.

A new paper ‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition,’  from the National Bureau of Economic Research’posits that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills such as conscientiousness perseverance, sociability, and curiosity  despite the fact that character skills are clearly valued in the job market and elsewhere.

Employers, while looking for technical and practical skills, value general communication skills, social skills- evidenced ,for example, in  customer handing,-and teamwork skills. But they often complain that evidence of these skills is  in short supply, in school leavers .Indeed, until recently, these skills and support for them in schools, have largely been ignored.

However, economists and psychologists have constructed credible measures of these skills and provide evidence that they are stable across situations and predict meaningful life outcomes.

What is meant specifically by the term character skills? In this study researchers use the term character skills to describe the personal attributes not thought to be measured by IQ tests or achievement tests. These attributes go by many names in the literature, including soft skills, personality traits, non-cognitive skills, non-cognitive abilities, character, and socio-emotional skills.

Psychologists primarily measure character skills by using self-reported surveys or observer reports. They have arrived at a relatively well-accepted taxonomy of character skills called the Big Five, with the acronym OCEAN, which stands for: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

The proposition here is that ‘Skills are not set in stone at birth. They can be improved. Cognitive and character skills change with age and with instruction. Interventions to improve skills are effective to different degrees for different skills at different ages. Importantly, character skills are more malleable at later ages.’  So, the clear message is, on the development of character skills- interventions really can and do help . Character skills also predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition.

This paper reviews the recent evidence on the predictive power of cognition and character and, crucially the best available evidence on how to foster them. A growing body of empirical research shows that character skills rival IQ in predicting educational attainment, labour market success, health, and criminality.

The paper says ‘Character is a skill not a trait. It can be enhanced, and there are proven and effective ways to do so. Character is shaped by families and social environments. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but performance on any task depends on multiple skills as well as the effort expended on it. Effort, in turn, depends on the incentives offered to perform the task. Since all measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills in measuring any particular character or cognitive skill. Despite these difficulties, reliable measures of character have been developed, although there is always room for improvement.’

‘Though stable at any age, skills are not set in stone over the life cycle. Both cognitive and character skills can change. Parents, schools, and social environments shape them, although there are important genetic in influences. Skill development is a dynamic process. The early years are important in laying the foundation for successful investment in the later years.’

While there is hard evidence on the importance of the early years in shaping all skills, some character skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later ages.

‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition-   from the National Bureau of Economic Research’  James J. Heckman, Tim Kautz Working Paper 19656 Cambridge Massachusetts

November 2013


Conference hears from UKTI and Higher Education Institutions


Emily Ashwell, the corporate financier who heads the education unit at UKTI(BIS) was a panellist this week at an Education Export conference run by Education Investor. The panel was discussing vocational education. HMG sees Saudi Arabia as a major education export opportunity and is selling UK expertise in vocational education and training, which is in demand in Saudi. Further Education colleges are being encouraged to step up to the plate. Other countries seen as priorities are Colombia, Mexico and Kazakhstan, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

The ten strong education unit sees the future in consortium bidding. The proposition is that governments abroad are seeking to transform their education systems. Opportunities will therefore be big in scale, complex and cross cutting.  To respond to this we need to offer a strategic, joined up, holistic approach, not a piecemeal and fragmented one .  This is about partnership and collaboration. So, the education unit can help gather educators, suppliers, construction companies, lawyers etc to offer integrated solutions. The implication here is that they will focus on the big ticket contracts. The smaller operators may have grounds for concern, although Ashwell denied this in a recent interview with Education Investor. In initial publicity launching the new export initiative earlier this year Pearson Education was referenced several times-and they are certainly big- and, when I last looked, not so obviously British.  But, that aside, UKTI deserve a chance and Ashwell certainly appears to be determined to help change the landscape and to ensure that we catch up with the more  co-ordinated  approaches  of  our major competitors including the US, Canada, and  Australia.

Meanwhile, Higher Education Institutions told the audience that the Home Offices’ visa policy is driving a coach and horses through our higher education exports. Foreign students are finding it too difficult and costly to apply to UK institutions and we are rapidly losing market share.  India has been particularly badly hit by this. Its now beginning to affect Chinese students. The Chief Executive of Sannam S4 ,Adrian Mutton , a recruiter specialising in India and China, said that the  old guard of the UK, Australia and the US are now  being challenged by Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland and Singapore, which are all experiencing double-digit growth in the number of students choosing to study there. Interestingly too  in Europe universities are teaching many more courses in English which is also seen as a possible  longer term  threat to UK HEIs.

HEIs want students not to be included in the net immigration figures. This seems unlikely before the next election.  The Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia even called for the Home Secretary to step down.  The view is that BIS and DFE are supportive of HEIs but the Home Office isn’t.