Mixed picture according to Professor Coe

Professor Robert Coe ,in a recent introduction to a round table discussion at the Demos think tank said,  in a   debate on education standards ie have they gone up-  “ The short answer is that we don’t really know because we haven’t collected the right kind of evidence. But when you look at what evidence we do have, it’s a mixed picture. There is some evidence of a modest rise across primary education, particularly in maths, but it looks as though that isn’t sustained into secondary school. So performance at the end of secondary school is more or less flat. Some studies suggest a decline; some suggest a rise. This is not consistent with the headline rise in GCSE or A-level performance. Those, I think we can say confidently, are not real increases. International studies—such as PISA and PIRLS—shed some light on outcomes but it is again a very mixed picture.’

Proof positive then, that the  large scale investment in education during the last Labour administration, the like of which we are unlikely to see again, any time soon, did not deliver the expected returns.  Moral-it’s the quality not the quantity that matters.  And if you preach evidence led/ informed practice/ policy- then for goodness sake practice what you preach .

Indeed, while Professor Michael Barber, who headed Tony Blairs efficiency unit,  was  preaching ‘deliverology’ ie good  project management,  and trying to increase productivity,  across public services, in education, during those years it  actually  fell.

One should not blame Labour for trying. Indeed  its commitment to education during that administration was  admirable . But politicians from all parties  are predisposed to intervene in education to make things better, but often get it wrong or only half right,  and dont pay  sufficient  heed  to sound empirical evidence about what interventions work.

We know that turning a poorly performing  school around is a huge challenge. We know its even harder to transform a system. We also know  that everything we do has to be informed by good evidence of what works . The challenge now is to turn that theory into practice.




  1. A few points. There is clearly no linear relationship between spending on education and standards (as measured by exam results).
    Sir Michael Barber, once Blair’s education advisor, is now up to his neck in the private sector with Pearson trying to privatise education via technology and computer based learning and testing.
    Pearson are partners with OECD Pisa in many enterprises yet Pisa rankings and their statistical model have been shown to be flawed. The coalition government have persisted in using and promoting Pisa even though the Cambridge professor for the public understanding of risk, Sir David Spiegelhalter has cautioned on any reliance on Pisa. Spiegelhalter is famous for his work cautioning against the inappropriate use, limitations and interpretation of league tables
    Perhaps this says more about the political interference in education and the attractive prospect of making a very good living out of connections gained in office than any genuine concern about the product produced by teachers and their pupils.

    • My view is much data produced by OECD on education is useful but I accept that there are limitations in Pisa methodology and the way league tables are used. I also note that Finland which apparently does so well in Pisa and is a favourite destination for education tourists is not quite as good as it at may at first seem.

      Also our politicians largely ignore other league tables where we are more highly rated, and also confusingly, given the importance they attach to Pisa ratings, are doing nothing to improve English pupils performance in Pisa tests.-(thank goodness) and so are creating a rod for their own backs…

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