There's a piece in this week's Observer entitled; "Our failing education system means its still no easier to climb life's ladder". The notion of an education system failing wholesale is of course a trope popular amongst people who want radical ideological change in education and don't mind implying that plenty of the folk responsible for delivering education are failing at their jobs.
The author, Yvonne Roberts, writes regular pieces for The Guardian/Observer and is associated with The Young Foundation. And of course journalists don't write the headline or 'standfirst' which appear above each article. Her article is an appeal to attitudes of mind valued by Michael Young (the author of The Rise of The Meritocracy and Dad of journalist Hugo Young, not the one whose comments this website flagged recently).
But it's striking how, beneath the trope headline, Roberts rests her argument entirely upon a recent OECD/PISA report which includes a comparative attitude survey of school students in different systems across the world.
PISA provides us with much useful information. But, for many, it also makes outlandish claims about financial returns on education, overstates comparartivity and provides a template for the radical increase of private sector involvement in education across the world. PISA, remember, tells us that entire education systems can be summarised in 3 digit format, and that these figures can predict accurately the effect of educational investment on GDP in 25 years time. Eric Hanushek is their go-to-guy here. It's a bold and, in the end, nonsensical claim based on an outmoded conception of Human Capital Theory.
PISA's services, which extend from an organisation whose purpose is to stress the role of economic growth, are ever growing. Its claim from its most recent triennial survey that 15 year olds in the Dominican Republic are the 'happiest students in the world' seemed banal and trivialising of the fact that extreme poverty is endemic in the Dominican Republic and many homes do not have, for example, a mains water supply. The same report found UK students amongst the least happy, of course.
You have to ask the question: Who benefits from the idea that children in the Dominican Republic are the happiest in the world in spite of profound poverty there; while children in the UK are amongst the last happy in spite of relatively high public expenditure here?
Robert's Observer article therefore starts out with a trope and ends up justifying a mindless comparison deployed by an organisation which exists to place claimed economic orthodoxy unchallengeably at the forefront of international educational purpose. It serves as a useful example, though, of how good intentions combined with shallow research can lead to deep unintended consequences.