Home / Discovery / Are International Comparisons of Education a Race to the Top or a Race to the Bottom

The education system in the UK seems to have lost some of its direction in recent years. On the one hand, the government is adamant on instilling British values in every student by encouraging schools to provide them with moral, cultural, social, and spiritual guidance. On the other hand, there’s evidence that we’re trying to align ourselves with top-ranking countries, like China. There are many recent examples of this, such as the translation of Chinese maths textbooks for UK schools, and the new education deal with China that will include more information-sharing.

There are certainly some benefits to sharing innovative learning techniques and taking steps to improve education provision in the UK. However, there’s also a strong debate over whether the improvements should come on a basis of trying to chase after the top-ranking countries for education. International comparisons of education have some positives, but also some drawbacks that could be hindering the advancement of unique education in favour of the pursuit of top-ranking education.



International Comparisons of Education: More Harm than Good?

International comparisons of education come in many forms, like the PIRLS and TIMSS reports, but often the most widely used example of an international comparison is PISA – a triennial survey that tests the skills of 15-year-olds from a large number of countries. The latest results from PISA, displayed in the PISA 2015 Results in Focus report, show that the UK is ranked 15th, 22nd, and  27th for science, English, and maths, respectively.

The international standing of UK education achievement shows that there’s room for improvement, especially if we want to keep up with the top-performers. However, while changing education to pursue the scores of the top performers may be considered a race to the top, there’s also a great argument to suggest that pursuing these scores is actually a race to the bottom.

How could pursuing better scores harm our education system? Well, it’s the very format of international comparisons that could be damaging the education system rather than enhancing it.

In 2014, a vast number of educational authorities, including professionals from leading universities, educational leaders, and organisations, signed a letter to Dr Schleicher, the director of PISA. In the letter, there was a list of many problems with the current international ranking system, showing a very different view of what PISA achieves. The concerns expressed over the negative side of PISA tests, included:

  • An increasing reliance on using quantitative measurements and testing
  • A higher attention on short-term fixes to improve rankings
  • A narrowing of educational objectives and a bias towards the economic role of schools
  • An increase in student and teacher stress levels due to continuous global testing



Paving Our Own Future for Education

The concern of a future with a narrower education, more testing, short-term fixes over effective solutions, and heightened stress pose a great argument as to why international comparisons could harm our existing education system. So, what should the UK do instead of chasing higher results in English, maths, science, and the other international testing criteria? One option would be to embrace the uniqueness of our country and be confident enough to chase after creative education rather than following the crowd.

Instead of focusing as heavily on international comparisons, we should look inwards and see where we can improve our education system to meet the needs of our students. Investment in creativity, which would otherwise be almost abandoned in the pursuit of the narrowed testing criteria of PISA, could separate us from the crowd, not just advance our position in it.

Creativity and technology are the lifeblood of the UK economy; in 2017, creative industries contributed £101.5bn to the economy and tech industries contributed £130bn. Embracing education in these two sectors, which are fundamental to our economy, may not give us the best rankings globally, but we’ll be racing to the top of more than just education rankings.


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