Why international comparisons of education should focus on both averages and equality

Each new round of the OECD’s global education survey leads to scrutiny of country rankings based on the average child’s performance, but the new Innocenti Report Card argues that equality in test scores is just as important as average standards. Yekaterina Chzhen and Gwyther Rees, lead authors of the report, illustrate this point in relation to the four nations of the UK in London School of Economics and Political Science. 

The UK comes 16th on equality in children’s education in UNICEF’s latest Innocenti Report Card, barely in the top half of the 38-country league table. If the four nations of the UK were included as separate entities, Wales and Northern Ireland would top the ranking, Scotland would rank 9th and England would move down to 20th place.

‘Naming and shaming’ comparisons based on standardised international school tests have become an important influence on public debates and on educational policy-making. Issues of equality and inequality are rarely mentioned. But, analysis of equality creates a very different picture of which countries are doing ‘well’ or ‘badly’. It also raises important questions about how policymakers can best use international comparisons to improve education systems for all children.

In our new report for UNICEF we argue that international comparisons of education should focus on both averages and equality. Here we illustrate these points with reference to the four nations of the UK. The UK is an interesting environment because devolution of responsibility for education to the four nations has created a case study on the impact of policy divergence. For example, the major shift in England in management of schools – from local authorities to independent bodies – is still going on and its long-term effects are unclear. A recent study suggested that recent policy changes may be creating greater educational inequality.

Figure 1 shows that England has the highest mean PISA reading score of the four UK nations and Wales has the lowest. England, Northern Ireland and Scotland are above the international average for EU/OECD countries, while Wales is below. These figures sparked the headlines such as: “PISA: Wales still worst in UK in world education tests”.

 

However, the score of the average child is only one way of evaluating school systems. It is also important to consider the equality of each system. Figure 2 shows the gap in reading scores between children at the 10thand 90th percentiles of the distribution. Here the tables are turned, Wales fares best (most equal), followed closely by Northern Ireland. Scotland ranks third and England is the least equal in the UK. England’s performance on this measure is around the EU/OECD average. But Wales and Northern Ireland are more equal than any EU/OECD country in the analysis. If they were treated as separate entities they would be at the top of this particularly PISA league table, and this would create a different set of headlines.

Wales is also substantially the most equal of the four UK nations (and second most equal in the international rankings) in terms of the socio-economic gap in reading scores between children of parents with ‘high’ and ‘low’ status jobs. England is the least equal of the four nations on this measure. On the basis of the differences in mean scores it has been argued, for example, that Wales’ relatively poor average performance is due to fewer very high-achieving students than other UK nations, particularly England; and improving performance at the top end is an emerging policy priority in Wales. But what are the implications of this kind of thinking? And why should we only make internal comparisons within the UK in this way?

Read more about the report and it’s findings. Why international comparisons of education should focus on both averages and equality

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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