Tim Richardson

Melbourne, Australia

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The value of measuring and reporting: How Wales sunk England

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Every five years, the OECD publishes a comprehensive survey of education in developing countries.

Among developed nations, the United Kingdom has gone backwards over the last two surveys. Analysis by the Economist shows that in the United Kingdom, results from English schools have been steady; the decline is mainly due to Wales. What happened in Wales? Authority for education was devolved to the new Welsh Assembly, which decided to stop publishing league tables of schools. League tables are school-by-school performance information (such as the recent "MySchool" website available to Australians). The Economist claims that the Welsh example proves one of the OECD's key findings: a key indicator of the strength, and improvement, of a school system is whether educational performance of individual schools is published allowing parents to compare.

Two results caught my eye because they have wider implications.

First, there is a clear connection between holding schools accountable, and results achieved, but only as long as schools have a chance to influence the results. This is commonsense. Publication of results has a clear link: Wales has gone backwards. The report also says that external standardised exams correlate to strong performance.

"Within countries where schools are held to account for their results through posting achievement data publicly,
schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to do better than those with less autonomy.
However, in countries where there are no such accountability arrangements, the reverse is true."

Secondly, a focus on small class sizes doesn't help outcomes. I've heard this before, but I never understood why this was true. It stands against commonsense: the smaller the class size, the more attention a student gets from the teacher. That has to be good, so strange that it's not true. Now I see why. Smaller class sizes means more teachers are required. If you need more teachers, and everything else stays the same (such as salaries), then getting the additional teachers means lowering standards. But if you let class sizes grow, you need fewer teachers. Even if you did nothing to salaries, you could keep the best teachers and raise the overall standard. However, the best systems make a stronger tradeoff. Rather than saving money by having fewer teachers, they trade off by paying more money to the fewer teachers, and they make sure that more money means better teachers. And the results prove that better teachers outweigh larger class sizes. For more, see this

The OECD study is available here.There are some real surprises in the results: streaming by student ability does not lift overall results, but it enhances the impact of socio-economic background (so it's bad, basically). The systems which are more likely to hold children back to repeat are lower performing systems. Students at private schools do better, but the difference is almost entirely predicted by their stronger socio-economic backgrounds: the private schools themselves don't make much difference.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 January 2011 14:42