UK OECD PISA scores – the hand-wringing starts again…

Oh boy, the OECD keeps the bad news coming for Britain’s teens, well according to our press, anyway. I debunked the last attack from the retired colonels at the Telegraph about the OECD scores, but this one seems more serious. I figured I really ought to take a look at the enemy first, and courtesy of the Torygraph I had a go at what PISA call the maths. I am pleased to say that this retired old git managed to do okay in maths. I do have one grouse on the terminology, because when I went to school this sort of thing was called ‘rithmetic – maths started with algebra and trigonometry, your multiplication and division, ie your sums, did not enter the lofty realms of maths, which started at first grade in grammar school, whatever benighted key stage whatever that is called now. It appears that when the OECD and PISA test if you can do maths, they are testing your sums… Meh.

an ermine did okay, despite my skooldaze being three and a half decades ago
an ermine did okay, despite my skooldaze being three and a half decades ago

Even the Grauniad, the paper of choice of the chattering classes and teachers all round, stuck the boot in to the kidz,

UK students stuck in educational doldrums, OECD study finds

Cripes. How did our bilious retired colonels take it then over at the torygraph? Straight in the kisser, it seems, and they know exactly what is wrong.

OECD league tables: UK pupils ‘fail to work hard enough

There. That’ll learn ’em, lazy good for nothings. I’m not quite sure I dare see what the Daily Fail has to say on the matter. I had to pinch this next graphic from the Grauniad because the PISA site has barfed, or more specifically the compareyourcontry bit, presumably sagging under the load of parents and journalists tearing their hair out and wringing their hands, respectively.

1312_OECDLITERACYCHART0212pngNow the first thing is all the papers have chosen the ranking to grizzle about, but if you look at the actual scores they are compressed towards the top. the UK is worst at ‘rithmetic, but 60 points are between us and the top score versus 85 to the bottom score, and yet we’re a bit more than halfway down there. For all that, it’s fair dos to South Korea, Japan, Finland and Poland, who show and excellent score and excellent balance. The Swiss are all round better than the UK scores but are less balanced, and  other countries are less balanced than the UK result, which surprises me.

I don’t actually find this so terrible either, Perhaps I am complacent, but I think the UK comes off okay in terms of the balance of the education achieved by school leavers. It’s an easy headline to yell that the UK slips below 20th in ranking (I’m not quite sure how the Graun got the UK at 26, 23 and 20 in maths, reading and science as it doesn’t really tally with the numbers they’ve lined up on the right, maybe they are showing the rotten UK education of their interns while the staff went down the pub).

I can’t face rekeying in the data to place this on a linear scale to show the compression towards the top. I’m also surprised at some of the results – take Israel for instance, which has a seriously good high-tech industry, in particular some areas of software, codecs and compression, the poor showing in science and maths is odd. The US shows a poorer result than the UK, so God knows how they get to be the largest single economy in the world with such an absence of smarts, and we presume that the Swedes were generally out to lunch when the PISA team came round 😉

Obviously the UK could and should strive to do better. It probably is fair to say that some Asian countries place a very high premium on studying even at school level – in which case trying to replicate those systems will rub up badly against more individualistic Western cultural preferences. More importantly we need to ask what we want of our education system – in general it seems to be creating citizens that can add value in the economy. Hopefully PISA score line up with that.

Getting better scores really shouldn’t be that hard. I could manage to do my bit for Britain score, despite there being an presumption that skills start to decay immediately on leaving university (from the OECD paper referenced in the earlier article). I’d be a little bit disturbed if the 50+ year old ermine’s education had decayed back to the level of a 15 year old simply due to the passage of time! US Slate’s article hints that an excessive focus on testing and test results hampers PISA scores, as they are also tests of inference and analysis, whereas from what I’ve seen of modern school tests (it isn’t a lot) is that the questions strike me as spoon-fed, no inference necessary. And yet inference is necessary to apply knowledge to the real world and turn it into wisdom.

So once again, leave them kids alone 😉 it could be better, but it isn’t dire. In many ways educating our schoolchildren in some key intangibles would be a better win – doing better at deferring gratification, and the fact that often in life you have to stick at something to actually get anywhere could make them a lot more effective. I am not so sure that the problems of Britain’s young are all placed at their education, it is their upbringing and the values their parents seem to fail to instil in them that seem to be thwarting effective behaviour when they grow up. Perhaps the excess focus on testing and metrics is trammeling thought too narrowly, it wouldn’t be the first case in recent times where an excessive focus on process and metrics delivered lots of what we say we want but failed to deliver things we couldn’t easily measure but really do want.

Although I am with Lord Kelvin’s grouse about qualitative information for things like battery life, I suspect in business and in education we have too much measurement of the things that are easy to measure and are taking our eye off the ball as far as the good things that are hard to measure. Metrics without values is a nasty road to hell IMO despite the good intentions.

After writing this I came across this which has an interesting angle on the remarkable success of the Asian countries at improving things greatly relative to Western countries. Although he considers that the UK is very average, he says a key difference with Asian countries is

The OECD argue that the single biggest reason why the Far East does so well is that they do not have the fixation with innate ability that many Western countries have

Now I do have this fixation, though it was partly a result of my selective experience. Selective education worked for me, because it got rid of the chavs kicking holes in the classroom walls. In educational theory if you throw enough adults at the problem you can discover what is troubling the chavs enough to raise their self-esteem so they don’t kick the damn walls in and crap on everyone else who are cowering trying to avoid getting a thump from these little shits.  1960s Britain was not rich enough to do that, and selective education at least save some people, the young Ermine included, though it let the less able go hang[ref]This wasn’t as harsh in those days as it would be now, at the time the economy had jobs for the non-academic in abundance.[/ref]

So pardon me if I am thoroughly of the opinion that you have to triage kids in education because otherwise some of the little blighters will wreck the life chances of others in order to express their precious little selves. Too much of the anti-selective narrative is about the life chances of the ones that failed the 11+ being wrecked. I’d find it more convincing if it acknowledged that lumping everybody together has its issues too – it only takes a few little bleeders to stiff the chances of everyone in a class of 31. Despite that delightful experience I do accept that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and theoretically perhaps nonselective education might work. I don’t believe it, but because I have nothing to do with education what I think doesn’t matter so it doesn’t harm any kids’ education 😉

I do agree that pretty much anyone could be taught how to achieve a decent score in PISA. As I said above, the maths section in PISA is not maths, it is arithmetic, and unless you are the wrong side of Boris’s 16% – and maybe even into that, you can be taught how to do basic sums, and perhaps how to apply this in the real world.

However, getting decent PISA scores isn’t going to make you advance human knowledge. At the higher levels, innate ability, combined with competent teaching, is where the leading edge will out. My maths[ref]maths is knowing what div and curl are, how to wrangle tensors, calculus and statistical methods. It isn’t working out the average speed of a kid’s pushbike :)[/ref] is relatively poor despite doing fine with PISA. I flunked university second year maths because I had no talent for it – and solving differential equations was where I ran out of road. There are some aspects of maths that you either get, or you don’t. Yes, reading the old textbooks now and with no pressure I might be able to comprehend it a little better, but I will never be good at it. I was one of the early users of the DOS version of Mathcad at work because I knew I was weak there, so I looked for ways to work round it[ref]that doesn’t always help, but it was good enough for analogue filter design, nowadays you’d use computer programs, simulation or more likely do it in DSP[/ref]. And when it comes to knowledge, I’d say the few percent at the leading edge are what matters to push a technological economy forward. I’m not sure that we should give up this fixation with innate ability at the highest levels, although I do take the point when it comes to school.

It probably costs an awful lot of money to drag the bottom end up to PISA standards, but it appears it can be done. Whether that is a worthwhile economic proposition for society I don’t know, but if it’s considered so in Asia and they get the results then it’s worth considering. However, I figure they have far better discipline in schools than we have – the crowd control aspect of teaching due to piss poor parental values in many cases could stymie attempts to bring everyone up to a decent level of PISA attainment. And before my money is spent in nonselective attempts to bring everyone up I’d like something to be done about discipline and attendance. It may be that to achieve Asian level attainment we will need to spend a hell of a lot more money and violate some of the rights of some parents to not give a shit. Which may not square with Western individualism and the right to self-determination and pursuit of happiness.


School leavers falling behind in Literacy and Numeracy according to the OECD – Not

You know how it goes – lovely bright sunny day here in the East of England, sparrows chirping, and it’s time to see what’s new in the world. The Torygraph tells me it’s all going to hell in a handcart, the old buffers at DT towers tell me

School leavers in England have lower levels of basic skills than their grandparents and now perform worse than young people in almost every other developed nation, according to a major international report.

Cripes. Okay, this is the Torygraph and the sky’s been falling in for decades. Frustratingly, they don’t give you a reference to this OECD report, presumably because as a reader you’re too thick as shit to be able to understand it, in some ironic post-modern self-referencing proof. However, the Ermine is tenacious and I have been digging for it so I have the reference for you[ref]It’s really maddening on some proprietary system because as an ordinary non-paying grunt you can’t d/l the PDF, but start at

(edit) that was apparently a press preview – get the full monty PDF for free with Greg’s link! (end edit)

There’s a more user-friendly interactive summary version at[/ref]

The whole document is strange – it is comprehensive but tries to slice and dice the survey of adult skills in all sorts of ways. The data is derived from interviewing and testing 5000 people in each country in their homes apparently. It would have been interesting to see what the tests were.

Now if we look at literacy proficiency [ref]to be found at[/ref]

Mean literacy proficiency
Mean literacy proficiency

and we lop out the 16-24 year olds, because a) they haven’t been to university yet and b) half of them aren’t adults IMO then the Torygraph’s snarl is not substantiated. Scores for old gits are 267 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 281 (chaps, 25-34). Advantage, handsomely, to the young pups methinks.

Let’s take a look at numeracy[ref]to be found at [/ref]

Mean numeracy proficiency

Scores for old gits are 265 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 275 (chaps, 25-34). Once again, advantage, handsomely, to the young pups, making it game,set and match.


University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph's retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here
University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph’s retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here (photo iStock)

I suspect the page that got the Telegraph’s dander up was this one

OECD literacy by age group
OECD literacy by age group

You can find this here and it clearly shows that the 16-24 years olds are short relative to the about to be retired. Unfortuately the tabular formation of this sucks, and even worse because I’m not entitled to get the PDF version I had to rekey some of these into Excel, to show this thusly

Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!
Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!

I’ve picked out the England results[ref]I’m not really sure why Scotland and Wales aren’t part of the OECD, while Northern Ireland is (and is comparable with England). Perhaps the OECD knows something about the Scottish referendum we don’t[/ref] in the heavy blue line. Note that our kids start about midway in this motley collection of First World countries, and get a lot better by the time they leave university. Which implies to me that for literacy our schooling is serviceable, and that our universities are remarkably successful in building on that, making the assumption that since about half of all English schoolkids go to university they lift the average, though of course it could be the non-uni half also make a decent fist of it. We also keep our literacy well in this country, by the time we become grizzled old gits like me (and I’m not even in the last cohort 😉 ) we are still able to read.

Note that this data has been adjusted for various factors. That may favour English old gits – when I went to university only about 11% of school leavers went, so higher education adjustments would up the scores for older people to compensate. There may be other factors – the trouble with compensating data for confounding factors is that you have to agree on the amount of detriment to compensate for.

I didn’t expect to come to that conclusion

When  I started writing this I was expecting to have a laugh with the Torygraph’s line. But it doesn’t stack up to my reading of the OECD data, and although I can be  stuck in my ways I try not to hold too many opinions that clearly at variance with the data. I used those ageing numeracy and literacy tables to come to a conclusion that isn’t the same as the Torygraph, and in general I charge the Torygraph with an across the board fail in their article.The OECD data does not show

[British] Young worse at maths and English than grandparents and behind ‘almost every other nation’

The writer knew the end of the article before they started writing it, and didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. No wonder they didn’t cite their sources properly, either 😉

I’m not saying it’s all hunky-dory – it may well be that the Chinese and Indians are miles ahead of us, work harder and the rest of it. The bar required for getting a job paying enough to enter the middle class is rising with globalisation, and living standards relative to the rest of the world will probably fall, though not necessarily absolute living standards.

I also have a suspicion that the young Ermine leaving Imperial with his Physics degree in 1982 might hold a decent candle to one leaving now, relatively speaking. My time in industry didn’t give me an overwhelming feeling that we were becoming better at general problem-solving, inferring knowledge and perhaps wisdom from data, and indeed on more than one occasion I had to stop someone about to so something that was going to be seriously dangerous. Even simple things that were universal knowledge (of electronics engineers) like the difference between audio Vrms and Vp-p, which can spoil an engineer’s day if not right [ref]the former is about a third of the latter, so getting this wrong can really piss you off if one end of the interface didn’t realise what’s meant; this is something I learned in 1976 O level Physics, not at university[/ref] were sometimes increasingly unfamiliar to those who should have known. But that’s probably why you need some old gits to leaven the young-uns – who were more open to new ideas, risk-taking and in specific fields knew far more even fresh out of university than I did after 30 years of working, though The Firm employed fewer and fewer graduates as its business changed.

But saying that the youth of today are less literate and innumerate compared to their grandparents is bollocks. We spend a shedload of money on tertiary education, so if some of that didn’t improve things from the 16-24s to the 24+  we really would have a problem. Graeme Paton is the Telegraph’s Education Editor, and while he delivered customer satisfaction to the Telegraph’s readership with a list of dog-whistle phrases

  • policies followed by the last Labour government had led to a decline
  • drop in achievement levels being disguised by years of “grade inflation” (yes, I’ve moaned about that too but the OECD tests were independent of O and A levels)
  • OECD data suggests that the UK has effectively gone backwards while other countries have surged ahead in terms of the basic skills needed in the workplace (err, no it doesn’t)
  • England’s position internationally is being dragged down by a long tail of underachievement
  • These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations

I don’t find the data backs him up. I think the grade is “Could do better” me old boy…


China Investment Corporation to Europe: Too much welfare has made you slothful and indolent, but you can turn it round

Straight talking from Jin Liqun, head honcho of the Chinese Investment Corporation (China’s sovereign wealth fund). He hits us straight between the eyes speaking to Channel 4

The root cause of trouble is the overburdened welfare system, built up since the second World War in Europe – the sloth inducing, indolence inducing labour laws.

It has to be said, I warmed to the old boy, both for his refreshing directness, and also for his manner. He seemed genuinely puzzled how a region like Europe which has achived much in the past could persistently screw up in the way it is doing. Jin Liqun speaks from 4:31 in the video below, and he really did say sloth inducing 🙂

I was reminded of his words when I read this curious article in the DT on “Teenagers failing to study tough subjects”  What counts as a tough subject, I wondered – they are

English, maths, science, languages and either history or geography

So what the heck are they studying? I can’t think of any subject I could have taken at 16 that isn’t covered there, with the exception of art and music. At school these “tough subjects” were the only subjects available to me! Okay, so they broke out science into Physics, Chemistry and Biology then, and English into English Language and English Literature which is how I got to do 10 O levels. Sadly the DT didn’t enlighten me what people are taking at 16 instead, I have the feeling that this may have something to do with Jin Liqun’s wry observations.