Eclectic. Selected. Scotland.

Conveyor Belt Kids and the PISA Effect

Some news stories have a habit of evaporating almost as quickly as they are published, but now that most of them are online they never disappear completely. It means that malcontents like me can retrieve the overlooked and over-cooked and hold it up to the light for closer scrutiny. This can, of course, lead to faux outrage on the internet over news items published months or even years previously, even though their provocations have long ceased to stir the blood.

However, it’s worth unpicking the way that the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was presented, perceived, reported and critiqued. The Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) 2015 PISA test results were reported on 6th December 2016 and quickly forgotten, but they are worth retrieving from the sewage of yesterday’s news.

Central to the OECD analysis are the statistical outcomes from the PISA tests, which (we are told) are designed to compare educational performance across the organisation’s member states. According to the OECD, Scots youngsters are falling behind, and the reaction of the press was suitably hyperbolic and credulous. This is only to be expected. If education in Scotland has been lagging so far behind, then it follows that the journalistic product delivered by the system will be concomitantly poor.

The reaction of the Scottish government was similarly one of affected alarm, albeit quite muted compared to the shrill cries of anguish emanating from the Welsh education secretary. Of course, we must do something. We are already doing something. Other initiatives will follow and commitment is unwavering. Most of all we will restore the status of Scottish education to its rightful place upon a pedestal of rectitude.

Hang on a minute, though. What you ask are the PISA tests, what business does the OECD have with our children and does it really matter? The tests only began in 2000 and are allegedly completed by a sample of 15-year-olds from OECD member states every three years. The two-hour paper encompasses core curriculum subjects, with the aim of scoring competencies in areas that are deemed economically useful such as science and maths. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but the clue is in the name.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, you will kindly note, is not a pan-global education authority. So what does the education of our young, much less their performance, have to do with a self-appointed arbiter of educational standards whose primary remit is to “develop market economies”?

Well, imagine that primal biological functions such as procreation are not simply for the perpetuation of the species, but primarily to feed the economies of nation states with worker clones. Somewhere early in the development phase of the new worker-product, the guidance system has to be programmed in anticipation of greater demand for (say) chemists and/or patisserie chefs. After that, it’s merely a matter of rolling out conveyor belt kids, primed and ready for a pre-ordained role in the workplace.


If our youngsters are performing poorly in science, maths and (crucially) home economics, then it is clear that Scotland will be uncompetitive in those realms. We will fall ever further behind “countries” like Singapore and China (*), which consistently lead the PISA results tables, and also make great choux pastry.

Of course, the media failed to contextualise any of this and neglected to mention that the economic advantages enjoyed by China and Singapore come at a very high price for individuals who live under authoritarian regimes. It’s almost as if they ‘forgot’ that they main reason for China’s dominance has nothing to do with exemplary education, and everything to do with slave rates for workers on the real life production line.

Similarly, Singapore is governed by a regime that actively discourages political, social and creative freedom of expression. The economically active population (50% of which consists incidentally of migrant labour) is reminiscent of Mr. Potter’s “thrifty working class” (**), firmly under control and firmly under the thumb. More significantly, its economic strength is readily understood when you consider that it is not a country at all, but a wealthy city-state with a population the size of Scotland’s crammed into an area the size of Glasgow and generating a GDP of around $450b compared to Scotland’s $245b (including the oil).

The PISA test itself seems to have been accepted with alacrity by many as a useful measure of educational accomplishment in 15-year olds across wildly different adolescent experiences. Yet, it is exactly the kind of multiple-choice artifice long disparaged by education professionals in the hallowed halls of knowledge.

Lasting educational impact upon economic and social stability arguably lies in lifelong learning which is valued in Scotland, but less so by the over-achievers elsewhere. In fact, 45% of all Singaporeans leave school with only a basic education, 18% have no school qualifications, and only 15% achieve GCE ‘O’ level standard. In Scotland, academic achievement correlates with socio-economic factors, but pathways to continuous personal development up to and including post-graduate study remain open through modular progression in tertiary education.

In 2014, research reported by the Office for National Statistics found that Scotland was the most highly educated country in Europe and among the most well-educated in the world in terms of tertiary education attainment, with roughly 40% of people in Scotland aged 16–64 educated to NVQ level 4 and above.

PISA tests are the sorts of general knowledge quizzes where people who are good at ticking boxes do particularly well, but the questioning mind flounders. Why would the lobster be in a cardboard box, and who in their right mind would want to store ten thousand of them in an aircraft hanger? Have a look at the 2015 paper and let your mind be boggled at the muddled thinking behind one question on bird migration. My alternative advice is to take the kids down to see the geese arrive at the Montrose Basin in October and be done with it.

The education offer in Scotland is very good, and yes, our young must be aware of the opportunities and barriers that the outside world presents to them. Nevertheless, if Scotland is seen to be falling educationally, then we have to disregard distractions from the likes of the OECD. There are many more significant things affecting educational outcomes than those purportedly reflected in arbitrary rankings conflated by PISA tests.

The most important of these is the value that we place on learning. It is a core value that has been undermined by the pervasive influence of a dumb-as-dogshit popular culture that has seen factual television diluted to an infantile level, the internet (quickly) reduced to a network of liars’ clubs and, most significantly, public libraries reduced to shadows and shells of their former selves. Our young cannot be encouraged to believe that learning is for losers, not while they have access to a rounded, inclusive curriculum that encourages inquiring minds to dig deeper.


The world beyond values those who continue to educate themselves, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that it was only a century or so ago that this tenet first became embedded in the Scottish psyche. The motives of the educational boards may have been as controlling as they were as civic-minded, but the virtues and advantages of self-empowerment were craved by working people who were long denied it by an imperious ruling class. In many respects, the suggestion of self-empowerment through education is one that Scotland has historically voiced with great enthusiasm. Surely a leading role awaits the country once more as it grapples with its changing place in a changing world?

The OECD seeks to shape and influence educational imperatives where it has no right to do so. It has no remit for education in Scotland, and its PISA test is irrelevant to the aims aspirations and core values of Scottish society. More than that, it is a very shaky construct in much greater danger of toppling than its famous namesake in Tuscany.

Educationalists, writers and analysts have lined up to take pot-shots at it, including William Stewart of the Times Educational Supplement who reminds us that in 2013, “statistical and mathematical experts…said that what had become the world’s most influential education league tables were, in fact, ‘useless’, produced ‘meaningless’ rankings and were compiled using techniques that were ‘utterly wrong’.”

And it gets darker still, as he continues, “Just as hardly anyone really understands the Google algorithm, how many teachers, politicians, educationalists or policymakers genuinely understand how Pisa works? Do teachers realise, for example, that many of the test scores used to calculate Pisa rankings are not from real pupils answering questions, but from a computer running a statistical programme to work out what the probable answer of a pupil who didn’t actually take the test would have been?”

Comparisons with other nations are entertaining for bored journalists and lazy politicians, but they are no use to man nor beast in Scotland. Our country will thrive on co-operation with others, and the ability of educated people to communicate productively in a spirit of collaboration. In short, we require a civilized, creative and humane citizenry, and not conveyor belt kids who exist only to serve short-term economic goals. Far better that we should innovate from within than adopt directives from the unelected invisibles whose motives are suspect and whose methods are dangerously and demonstrably flawed.


(*) Pisa used examples only from Shanghai and Hong Kong to infer the high ranking for China as a whole.

(**) Mr. Potter is a character in Frank Capra’s ‘Wonderful Life’



Photos: James Sutter, unsplash.com

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