The OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world

Andreas Schleicher of its Education Department was referred to by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove as the most influential man in world education.

But what is the  OECD’S vision of education and the purpose of schools? What do we know about it and to whom is the OECD accountable? Big questions, without easy answers.

Education policy and interventions worldwide are significantly influenced by the Pisa  process and league tables. Governments have been known to change their policy in response to their Pisa rating, and the phenomenon of ‘Pisa shock’ is now all too familiar.

Though Gove is long gone, Schleicher is still very much in post. Given that  Pisa is so important, shouldn’t there be greater transparency  and mechanisms of effective democratic participation in its education decision-making process. Some critics suggest that the OECD lacks transparency and accountability. And, perhaps most seriously, that there may be a conflict of interest at the heart of what it does,

The OECD  has  entered into alliances with multi-national for-profit companies, which rather obviously stand to gain financially from any deficiencies real or   perceived—unearthed by Pisa. The OECD runs courses to help students and schools improve their Pisa scores.  So there is an incentive there, is there not,  for the OECD to paint a picture of failing students and  education systems. The politicians who run these failing systems then turn to the OECD for help and support.

And is  it not strange that ,given  our politicians view Pisa as so important,  and  are so preoccupied with our league table position , and worry so  about its results (broadly we didn’t budge on  our low  rankings in the last Pisa results) yet  they   do nothing to improve our students  performance in Pisa?

I am not saying they should do anything,  by the way,  let alone buy into  programmes run by the OECD  to help improve Pisa ratings. Its just that if you decide that the metrics the OECD  use are important and you want to be part of it all,  surely you should make sure that  you put in place interventions that help improve your students’ performance and outputs  against the chosen metrics.   But we don’t do this. Now that’s odd. Why ask to be measured against something over which you have no  control or influence. You are expecting certain  outputs without being in control of inputs.  That’s just not clever.

Pisa has taken on a big challenge, for sure,  in  measuring  performance between widely different education systems and curricula.

Arguably, and this is a point made by Professor David Labaree  of Stanford University, instead of measuring how well students learn what they are taught in each system, it measures a set of economically useful skills that nobody actually  teaches. It looks at how well students demonstrate mastery of these particular cognitive skills.  These skills may be important, but they are not taught,

And as  Labaree points out ,in focusing on  it’s a narrow range of measurable aspects of education Pisa takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives.

To understand  the OECD you have to understand where it is coming from.  It is not looking to  measure  students for a rounded education. Its interested in utilitarian skills that are economically useful. It:

‘assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies’ and it attempts  to capture how well they can apply what they have learned in school.’

The message is that the only learning that is seen as worthwhile is the kind that is immediately useful.

Though the methodology for collecting the results  is clear to some , the way they are interpreted and analysed to become final results is less so.  US researchers, for example,  have found that US PISA scores are depressed partly because of a sampling flaw resulting in a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers  Shanghai , did  very well in the last Pisa, but there are allegations that it managed to exclude from the tests its most disadvantaged students, skewing the results.  .And many academics suggest that the OECD frequently confuses correlation with causation..not uncommon in research but one is entitled to expect better from the  OECD. A  lack of statistical transparency has been a focal point of criticism levelled at Pisa and indeed the OECD for some time now.

However, even some of the OECDs strongest critics concede that much of the data it generates as part of the overall exercise are very useful. And to be fair, Schleicher himself urges caution among policy makers when reacting to the Pisa results and warning against  knee jerk reactions.

But given the importance of Pisa that is hard. Undoubtedly there needs to be more informed discussions about the role and influence of Pisa, its methodology, accuracy and the way League tables are interpreted and , above all ,used. There is also the knotty issue of a possible conflict of interests that needs to be addressed. And if our government really wants us to do better in rankings it should either do something about it, or if its not prepared to do so , not treat Pisa as so important. Why not take a closer look at TIMSS ,where we do rather better?




Universities are about the communal examination of ideas
There is a new intolerance that is sweeping higher education in the US and UK. Its an intolerance of words, ideas and images. Andrew Anthony expressed it thus “ a zealous form of cultural policing that relies on accusatory rhetoric and a righteous desire to censor history, literature, politics and culture.” A new vernacular is developing around this of ‘Safe Spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and ‘ trigger warnings ‘. Worryingly, many universities, rather than defending freedom of speech and expression are doing the opposite. Allowing a new culture of censorship to develop.
Research by online magazine Spiked, shows that 80% of universities, as a result of their official policies and actions, to have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus, beyond the requirements of the law. However, it transpires Students’ own representative bodies are far more censorious than the universities themselves.
An obsession with protecting people’s feelings has, over time, begun to trump other values. Including it seems the values of the Enlightenment and the exercise of dispassionate, secular reason, on which the foundations of world class universities were built. This seems to have combined with social Medias considerable capacity to give currency, organisation, effect, and faux credibility to minority radical views. (There is scant evidence that a majority of students sympathise with these views-an HEPI poll for example this year found a majority of undergraduates agreeing that universities should never limit free speech )
But there is a push back underway. Earlier this year ,Professor Louise Richardson, Oxfords Vice Chancellor said : “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable about and what it is about those ideas that they object to. And then to have the practice of framing a response and using reason to counter these objectionable ideas and to try to change the other person’s mind and to be open to having their own minds changed. “That’s quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces and I hope that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken.” (Daily Telegraph 16 Jan 2016)
More recently in  a  speech at Melbourne University (14 September Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Foundation Lecture)- Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, offered a robust defence of free speech on campus. She said “Universities are about the communal examination of ideas”. Adding that “ As the next generation of intellectuals, while you have a duty to test and critique the boundaries of scholarship, you also have a duty to ensure respect for others as these boundaries are tested. The debate will only ever be as good as the space it is given. Argument and disagreement are all part of the course to finding solutions. It is only through the interplay of constructive and engaged examination, that we can progress in our understanding and knowledge of the world. As leaders in higher education – the key sector of society which provides such space across the world. I feel we have a duty to preserve and protect free speech. It is a duty I hold dear.”
But as Lady Amos points out ,as others have her before her “ it must also be recognised that these rights are not absolute – these are rights that need to be exercised with due regard for others – with respect.”

When universities stop being about confronting new and challenging, perhaps even dangerous, ideas, and instead become self-censoring spaces in which students are  protected from ideas that might offend , and in which acceptable views, and speakers, are defined ( by a self-appointed illiberal  elite), , and others banned, not only the pursuit of truth is imperiled but the very purpose of universities is  undermined.


Gerard Liston, an enterprise and employability consultant, told Schools Week,  that  he had “real concerns” about a “lack of progress and lack of sustainability” at the CEC, and said its funding – £70 million over this parliament – would be better spent on training teachers to deliver guidance in classrooms.

“There is a real limit to what can be achieved in a school through one day a month with a volunteer from business,” he said, adding that he was disappointed with the “lack of results and the superficial nature” of projects from CEC so far.’

There are fears that the CEC, is front loaded, meaning its heavy on marketing itself but light on delivery. Within a year of its establishment the then Minister Sam Gyimah talked of significant achievements omitting to  mention  what they were. Inputs are clear outputs less so. There is nothing on the CEC web site about the impact it is having on the guidance offered to  young people.  There is also a  perception developing that it is almost entirely focused on employer engagement  and ‘enterprise’ rather  than in  ensuring that pupils have easy access to professional independent guidance, including face to face guidance which evidence tells us  benefits the most disadvantaged more than anyone else  . Nor does it seem to understand what Careers ‘education’ means.    Its beginning to look like an expanding  Quango, with  as much being  spent on its  25  staff , (at least three are on six figure salaries)  its contractors  and  central London rent, as is going in to  ensuring that the quality of professional  guidance is raised throughout the system, that guidance is no longer a lottery and that the end user, the pupil , confronted with  hard and complex  choices, benefits directly.  Its most recent research confirms what we already knew, that with so much information out there pupils find it all rather bewildering, with information overload- and don’t know where to start. Which is precisely why many of  them, indeed most, would benefit from  a  meaningful,   face to face chat with a guidance professional. Very few get this though. Instead employers are being turned into proxy guidance specialists, but without the  necessary qualifications, information  and knowledge to offer real support, or guidance.

Meanwhile, pupils making crucial early choices about what routes and qualifications to take are too often not able to make informed choices. Putting an employer or Enterprise Adviser into a school does nothing to address this.  No surprise then that social mobility remains stagnant. As Dr Deirdre Hughes , a leading Guidance expert, has said “It’s great that they want to be known as an evidence-based organisation .But we don’t need to have a quango producing what’s there already. What we need is to get independent, impartial careers advice back into communities” Hughes would like to see the CEC  funding making a difference at grassroots level. Wouldn’t we all.

So rather  than paying lip service   to the Gatsby  benchmarks and cherry picking, CEC  should revisit Number 8 ,on Personal Guidance. It says:

‘Every student should have opportunities for guidance interviews with a career adviser, who could be internal (a member of school staff) or external, provided they are trained to an appropriate level. These should be available whenever significant study or career choices are being made. They should be expected for all students but should be timed to meet their individual needs.’ Why has the CEC done so little to make this happen?

And  why is it paying out so much taxpayers money to its senior members of staff ,  with such limited accountability,  and without addressing  the most fundamental challenge- to transform the quality,  accessibility and scope of professional guidance available  to our  young people .


See Schools Week Article

£70m government-funded careers company insists it has ‘achieved a lot’




A version of this article  was  published in Education Investor (September 2016)

Last April, it was reported that No 10 was in talks with the University of Buckingham about funding a new school leadership college.  Although details were sketchy, the aim seemed to be to fast -track top graduates fresh out of university, into leadership positions. With structured support from the college and experienced mentors they could serve an apprenticeship, and be   accelerated into Headships, where they are needed most. (mainly in Coastal and Rural areas, as it happens)

The discussions reflected growing unease in the government   about a looming Leadership crisis in schools.  These concerns  remain. There is a dearth of good heads, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Supply is not matching demand.

Heads are increasingly hard to find.  A 2015 survey by the National Governors’ Association (NGA), found that 43% of respondents reported that it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff. Perhaps more alarming, many good teachers and potential leaders, eschew Headship.  In 2o15 The Key found 86.8% of school leaders believed headship was less attractive as a career choice than it was in 2010. Another survey of headteachers, by The Future Leaders Trust , saw less than half of respondents saying that they still planned to be a headteacher.

It’s not hard to see why. Though still rewarding for some, too many are being put off   by the challenges and lack of support.  School budgets have reduced in real terms by about 7%. Pupil numbers are on the rise, with a capacity shortage. There are   too few   specialist teachers. Schools are also subject to relentless changes to the curriculum, assessment and accountability frameworks, while the accelerated academisation programme brings new pressures.

Meanwhile, the focus on structural reforms has shifted attention away from Leadership, though it and the quality of teaching, have the most impact on outcomes Indeed, the one factor that all good schools have in common is good leadership As Professor Michael Fullan said “effective school leaders are key to large scale sustainable education reform’. It’s a given, if you want to transform a failing school, change the leadership.  Everything else follows. What we don’t have is proper career planning for Heads.  And our system lacks an effective end-to-end model for identifying, encouraging, training and developing the best leaders over time.

We pretty much know what we want from Heads. A clear vision and ability to see it through. While research also tells us that the closer leaders get to the core business of teaching and learning, the more likely it is that they will have a positive impact on their students.

So what we need, in short order, is to identify the best ways of developing this. There is probably no silver bullet, there rarely is in education. But look at the Buckingham apprenticeship model, and its focus on accelerated routes to Headship.  Also, The Future Leaders Trust and Teaching Leaders are doing interesting work    creating a joint network of 5,000 school leaders at all levels working in the most challenging schools in the country. Make sure that Heads and Governors are actively identifying potential leaders, and supporting their development. Look at what successful MATs are up to-the Harris Federation recruits 80% of its Heads in-house. The DFE is reviewing Leadership qualifications, about time too, as they don’t seem to have much credibility in the profession. Teach First is good at spotting leadership potential. Alumni of its two-year teaching training programme, are over seven times more likely to progress to senior school leadership. What are they getting right?   The ASCL, is developing its own Foundation for Leadership in Education, how can this contribute? All these elements may have a role to play. But there needs to be a coherent vision, with these elements working towards the same goal as part of a seamless effort.  That will require ‘political’ leadership. But we need to act now if system- wide improvements in outcomes are to be delivered and sustained.


The Green paper suggesting ideas  for  more selection in the state system has been heavily criticized. Mainly because it fails to highlight any evidence that increased selection will improve choice ,or, crucially improve the lot of the most disadvantaged either in terms of attainment or social mobility.  In fact, unless handled properly it could make their position infinitely worse.  The authors of the paper themselves seem to accept that the current selective system is unfair on the most disadvantaged pupils, because it suggests a raft of measures, incentives, conditions and sanctions   to  try  to make sure that these newly  selective  schools  will take their  fair share of the most disadvantaged pupils. (as clearly there is a perceived   risk  that  unless they are  heavily regulated and scrutinized that they wont)   So much for school autonomy, and the removal of red tape.  It  was good while it lasted. This envisages something of a bureaucratic  and regulatory nightmare .  The Green paper does seem to concede  though that the current  11 Plus test  can be coached,  (and therefore rich families have an advantage) and  that poor  children in areas that have grammar (selective ) schools tend to do  worse than poor pupils elsewhere.

This is what the  the  Green Paper says (Pg 21, Para 4):
‘Many selective schools are employing much smarter tests that seek to see past coaching and assess the true potential of every child. However, under the current model of grammar schools – while those children that attend selective schools enjoy a far greater chance of academic success – there is some evidence that children who attend non-selective schools in selective areas may not fare as well academically – both compared to local selective schools and comprehensives in non-selective areas.’

I assume  when the Green Paper refers to  the much smarter tests  that ‘ see past coaching ‘  its referring to those designed by CEM (Durham). There are few academics who have done more than Robert Coe of Durham  has to champion evidence based /informed practice in the teaching profession . But CEM  may be struggling to deliver  on these smart tests.   Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire (selective area) for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’  So, not so smart then.

In short,  it would seem that  a test that ‘ sees past coaching’ has not yet  been developed. It may be a long wait .


The Eleven Plus exam determines whether or not a child gets into a grammar school. Critics claim this is an arbitrary age at which to test children on their abilities and potential and that the exam is unfair on disadvantaged pupils who tend not to have educated parents, who can help them, or access to private tutoring. There has long been a claim that the exam is cleverly designed to be tutor proof and is structured to identify ‘real’ potential and ‘intelligence’ . But, If you believe that intelligence is not fixed (Carol Dweck) and there are different types of intelligence (Howard Gardner) then you are not likely to rate this exam.
There is of course too, a cottage industry in private tutoring that exists precisely in order to get children into grammar schools . So this claim has always been open to challenge. In addition, at least 18% of successful grammar school applicants attended private primary school, most of which, offer bespoke support for grammar school applicants.
In addition, Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM (Durham) and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’
Recent analysis from the IFS found that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and later earnings of those who get in, but that pupils in areas with selective state education who do not pass the 11-plus entrance exam do worse than in areas without grammars.
Proposals in the Green paper suggest that Ministers have doubts about the 11 Plus too. It says that selective schools would have to admit children at different ages, such as at 14 as well as at 11 and 16, to cater for pupils who develop later academically.




The work of Professors John Hattie, Eric Hanushek and Robert Coe, among others, tells us that good teachers  arent just born, but they  can be made,  with good training and   support and  an openness to new evidence of what works.   .
There are many myths about what effective classroom interventions look like, but more robust research is challenging and correcting  these myths. We know that high quality teaching has a dramatic and positive effect on student progress, whereas poor teaching really does close off life opportunities, for some, indeed far too many..
In the UK teachers have been helped in this particularly by the work of John Hattie (Visible Learning) who has designed an ‘Effects table’ that orders the most effective interventions, but also the Education Endowment Foundation, which has reviewed research and designed a user friendly toolkit that guides teachers through evidence based robust interventions that improve outcomes. If you show teachers what works and they then apply it in their practice, the chances are that it will improve their students outcomes. (It might surprise you but reducing class size is one of the least effective interventions, whereas getting good feedback from students and acting on it. is one of the best, according, at least ,to Hatties work.) What works in terms of effective teaching, seems to be high-quality instruction ,using evidence of what works, and so-called “pedagogical content knowledge”—a blend of subject knowledge and teaching craft..
The Economist recently quoted Charles Chew, one of Singapore’s “principal master teachers”, an elite group that guides the island’s schools: “I don’t teach physics; I teach my pupils how to learn physics.”
Teachers like Mr Chew, the Economist pointed out, ask probing questions of all students. They assign short writing tasks that get children thinking and allow teachers to check for progress. Their classes are planned—with a clear sense of the goal and how to reach it—and teacher-led but interactive. They anticipate errors, such as the tendency to mix up remainders and decimals. They space out and vary ways in which children practise things, cognitive science having shown that this aids long-term retention.
These techniques work, according to the Economist (11 June) . In a report published in February the OECD found a link between the use of such “cognitive activation” strategies and high test scores among its club of mostly rich countries. A recent study by David Reynolds compared maths teaching in Nanjing and Southampton, where he works. It found that in China, “whole-class interaction” was used 72% of the time, compared with only 24% in England. Certainly Nick Gibb ,the schools Minister, thinks that our teachers and schools have much to learn from the East and has focused in particular on the way mathematics is taught there.  (Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai)
So ,there is plenty of high quality evidence out there about what works and what can really help improve the quality of teaching. The problem is that too many schools don’t take this seriously enough. How to identify the best and most robust research, to manage it ,to ensure that it is disseminated to the right people, who can use it, , and to ensure that it is applied in the classroom, is still a vast challenge, it seems. Broadly, awareness of research and utilising it to inform practice all comes under the umbrella of whats called ‘Knowledge Management’. And, Knowledge Management in our schools system is simply not good enough. Depressingly a recent survey of middle leaders responsible for Teaching and Learning in schools found that just a third thought education research important. We still have a long way to go ,it would seem.