OECD Confirms UK School Grade Inflation

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In its recent economic survey of the UK, the OECD devotes a significant part of its comments to a critique of how grade inflation in tests and public examinations [SATS & GCSEs] has obscured a poor performance when compared internationally through its own PISA studies and the like.   The report says:

Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom.  Average PISA scores, measuring cognitive skills of 15–year olds, have been stagnant and trail strong performers such as Finland, Korea and the Netherlands.  The use of benchmarking in England is more widespread than in virtually any other OECD country.  Transparent and accurate benchmarking procedures are crucial for measuring student and school performance, but “high–stake” tests can produce perverse incentives.  The extensive reliance on National Curriculum Tests and General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) scores for evaluating the performance of students, schools and the school system raises several concerns.  Evidence suggests that improvement in exam grades is out of line with independent indicators of performance, suggesting grade inflation could be a significant factor.  Furthermore, the focus on test scores incentivises “teaching to tests” and strategic behaviour and could lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation.

It goes on in this vein for several pages.  The bar charts in Figure 4 make for particularly depressing reading.  They show the rise of national grades set against the fall in international scores, and this is not just an English problem as even the much vaunted Scottish system is found at fault.  Meanwhile, Wales doesn't get a mention.

OECD is particularly concerned at how children from disadvantaged homes fare badly in the UK.  In paragraphs 25 and 26 they say:

Schooling outcomes in the United Kingdom are among the more unequal in the OECD area.  This leaves many students from weaker socio–economic backgrounds with insufficient levels of competence, which hampers their chances in the labour market and higher education.  Further reforms are needed to improve the outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to raise their life chances and overall productivity.

The unequal educational outcomes partly reflect a complex, multi–layered and poorly functioning deprivation funding system for primary and secondary schools in England.  The implicit compensation for disadvantaged students that the government provides to local authorities is only partially spent on disadvantaged schools and students.  This mismatch partly reflects the complexity of the funding system.  By moving to a less complex system and introducing an explicit pupil premium, the government has started to address these problems.  The premium is, however, relatively low in an international perspective and it is not clear that it will cover the extra costs of admitting disadvantaged students.  The government needs to ensure incentives are sufficiently large to incentivise schools to admit disadvantaged students.  To maximise transparency the government should consider increasing the pupil premium, within the overall budget constraint on public spending, and making it the only source of deprivation funding.

Indeed.  I have long thought that schools would compete madly for such children were the funding really to encourage this and enable dedicated and effective teaching.

The situation is summarises as follows:

Despite significant increases in spending on child care and education during the last decade, PISA scores suggest that educational performance remains static, uneven and strongly related to parents’ income and background.  Better educational performance could improve labour market outcomes, raise growth, lower the consequences of a disadvantaged background and increase social mobility.  Given the austere fiscal outlook, improvements have to come from higher efficiency rather than further spending.  More focused pre–school spending on disadvantaged children could improve skill formation.  Better–targeted funding for disadvantaged children combined with strengthened incentives for schools to attract and support these students would help raising educational outcomes.  The government is increasing user choice by expanding the academies programme and introducing Free Schools, but needs to closely follow effects on fair access for disadvantaged children.  The impact of increasing user choice oneducational outcomes is uncertain, but the government should experiment with proscribing the use of residence criteria in admission to local government maintained schools in some local authorities. Reforms to increase supply flexibility should be pursued.  All government funded schools should enjoy the same freedom in hiring and wage setting to level the playing field across different school types.  To better gauge progress and inform policy makers, schools and parents on educational outcomes, additional performance measures should be developed and steps taken to lessen the reliance on grades in performance management. Insufficient supply of high–quality vocational programmes and tertiary education study places hamper human capital formation and growth.  Stabilising and simplifying vocational education by more focus on high quality apprenticeships would support participation.  The government needs to find efficient measures to raise participation especially among children from low income families to replace the abolished educational maintenance allowance.  Further reforms to funding of higher education could lower taxpayers’ costs and help finance a needed expansion in the sector.

All very worth a read, and Chapter 4 deals with climate change policy ...

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