Gove hangs his reforms again and again on international tables of education performance. Newspapers, TV and radio repeat these statements as if a)the tables must be correct b) Gove's conclusions about them are correct and c) Gove linking Britain's place on the tables to Britain's competitiveness is valid.
In fact, there are serious criticisms of the validity of the tables as showing valid data, there are serious criticisms of politicians' conclusions from them and I would chip in on c) that matching something as complex and multi-factorial as 'competitiveness' to the achievements and failures of 15 year olds is absurd. More on that in a moment.
a) the data
It's been pointed out that there are problems in:
i) the sampling - ie who was tested, how were they selected, when were they selected. For the tables to be valid, the sampling would have to be identical in social composition, length of time of education prior to the test, gender and so on. According to some, these safeguards were not in place.
ii) statisticians use the phrase 'significant difference'. Some have said that the differences, as expressed by overall positions are not 'significant' especially as the tables themselves involve bringing in new nations and the scores represent averages - a problematic way of expressing a profile of achievement.
b) the conclusions
It's been pointed out that
i) success and failure in education does not rest entirely with the content of education. According to Harvey Goldstein it's worth about 10% of a score in comparison to the 90% caused by social class and family background.
So, if politicians are saying that 'our' education system is letting the children down, this, according to Goldstein is at best a 10% correct statement!
To factor that in to the data, the sampling for the tests would have to be based on social class. I don't think they are. (Please correct me if I misread the information here.)
ii) one of the key variables in some countries is the extent to which the sample buys in private tuition. This is the claim made re the Singapore sample. If correct, this wouldn't show up as 'education' being the cause of Singapore's higher scores.
This seems to me to be the weakest link in the whole business.
We should ask what percentage of success or failure of the chunks of international capital we call 'a nation's competitiveness' is dependent on its state education system?
What evidence is there for this?
i) a 'country's competitiveness' seems to be a statement or measure of its companies to compete in the world market. But the companies of a country like Britain are international both in their use of capital, their employment of managers and their employees. In other words, capital is multinational, management and employees are international. The competitiveness of a company might be because a) it is heavily capitalized from non-UK sources b) it hires non-British managers or c) hires non-British employees (not only through immigration but because a lot of its production takes place outside of the UK).
ii) education has never been the total means by which companies 'tool up' its workforce (including managers). Some degree of a company's competitiveness will be down to its ability to train its workforce well and successfully.
iii) one of the key factors - some would say the most important key - to a company's competitiveness is to do with its ability to buy/rent/hire land, buildings and above all 'labour' cheaply - or, to be precise, more cheaply than a competitor can.
And here we may find the key to what is really going on in education. Even as Gove et al decry 'lack of skills' or poor position in the league tables, he is part of a government that is making the calculation that only by cutting the cost of labour, will the UK attract capital. There are many ways of trying to cut the cost of capital - one of them is to unskill, deskill the workforce. The government reforms to education involve marking out a layer of children and students as failures right from the Phonics Screening Check through to the new 16-plus exam.
In spite of all that is said about the 'information economy' the 'high skill economy' etc it is clear that modern capitalism hasn't done away with its army of unskilled labour and it would appear (eg from the latest news about John Lewis's cleaners) that there is immense pressure coming from capitalism to spend less and less on this pool of essential, low-skilled labour. To do so, they think presumably would increase their 'competitiveness'.
iv) another non-educational factor in competitiveness is a company's ability to squeeze money from its 'local' government eg through interest-free loans, infrastructure built in order to 'improve communication' eg road, rail, air links, government contracts and so on. The noises that come from people like Vince Cable are all in this zone and indicate the importance that he, amongst others, places on these matters. Again - nothing to do with education.
v) another non-educational factor is 'geo-political' - eg the availability of raw materials (like oil or uranium, say), the extent to which government can be lobbied to favour this or that industry (see the Murdoch bid for BSkyB for example). These are clear attempts to make this or that business 'competitive' in the sense that it wants to win contracts or chunks of the market. Sometimes these are of international importance, and/or ways of securing national favours over 'foreign' firms. In terms of 'international competitiveness', the more successful a national government is in guaranteeing its own national companies, then the more successful that company has been in competing to win the contract - clearly nothing to do with 'education'.
Conceptually, there is one more problem underlying all this: namely Gove's belief that the particular kind of education he is bringing in (or returning to)will do what he says it will ie make Britain more competitive.
Put it this way: how could it? He is clearly increasing the amount of rote-learning and training for the one-off moment exam, rather than anything more considered. Everyone knows that increasing rote-learning diminishes the amount of critical thinking required to do well. Everyone knows that one-off exams can be 'mugged up' in one intensive short burst in the weeks before the exam and forgotten afterwards. (As I've said before, my exam record is in fact a record of the fact. Whatever I've achieved comes from hours and hours of critical thinking that came from a home obsessed with questioning, debate, argument, reason and creativity.)
So, how precisely will increasing rote-learning and mugging up help British companies become more competitive? Where is the evidence for such a suggestion?
To point out one absurdity on my home turf, English: in order to make English more suitable for one-off exams, you have to increase the amount of right and wrong answers. Step forward, spelling, grammar and punctuation testing. Where is the evidence that higher scores in these would improve competitiveness - especially as the grammar that is taught has never been shown to improve children's and student's writing and reading?