In the recent Dfe publication ‘Reforming assessment and accountability for primary schools – March 2014’ page 4, The case for change, it says:
“Our current expectations for primary schools are set too low. In 2012, less than half the pupils who had only just reached the current expected standard at key stage 2 went on to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics. In contrast, seven in ten of those with a ‘good’ level 4 or above achieved this GCSE standard.
The new assessment and accountability system for primary schools described in this document will set a higher bar. With the continued improvement in teaching and the sharper focus of the new curriculum, results should rise.”
I started to think about the message that this would send to teachers and schools. Basically, performance is not good enough. Need to work harder and smarter. Leaving aside that these results don’t tell us that the problem resides in primary schools (it might), I began to wonder about what was driving us to want to see increasingly better performance in exams.
The message we are given (although not presented in this Dfe report) is that in the global market place we need to be better educated as a country in order to successfully compete. The driver is an economic one. Then I remembered something I read in Ha-Joon Chang’s book ‘23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism‘. Chapter 17, page 178, examines the notion that higher levels of education in a country leads to higher economic productivity (that is, to increased national wealth). This appears to be a no-brainer. How could it not be true?
Well, according to professor Chang, it isn’t true. For example, in 1960 Taiwan’s literacy level was 54% whereas the Philippines had a literacy rate of 72%. Also in 1960, the Philippines per capita income was almost double that of Taiwan. By 2010, Taiwan’s per capita income was ten times that of the Philippians, despite the starting literacy rates. Or take the example of South Korea and Argentina. In 1960, Argentina’s literacy rate was 91% and South Korea’s was 71%. South Korea’s per capita income was one fifth that of Argentina. Now South Korea has a per capita income three times that of Argentina. Literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 40% to 61%, but per capita income fell by 0.3% per year during the same period (1980-2004).
Eek. Part of the explanation for this might be that increased mechanisation leads to higher productivity, and increasing mechanisation requires less skills in the workforce. But, if we look at the higher end, at the knowledge economy, we would expect that participation in higher education would correlate with national wealth in the richer nations. This isn’t the case for Switzerland. It has consistently had one of the lowest participation rates in higher education (university enrolment rates) of the OECD nations. Even in 1996 it was only 16% compared to the OECD average of 34%, but Switzerland is one of the top few richest and most industrialised countries in the world. So, higher university enrolment doesn’t necessarily lead to improved economic success. Professor Chang suggests that increasing university attendance leads to degree inflation. If an increasing proportion of your competitors in the jobs market has a degree (or a Masters, or a PhD) then you also need one.
Where does this leave us? Possibly, improving education outcomes (as measured by exam success) doesn’t lead to increased economic success. There are many other reasons to improve education, but if economics isn’t one of them, perhaps we need to re-think what we are trying to achieve in changing the assessment approach. Because what is proposed continues the narrative that exam success isn’t good enough……