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PISA results highlight pressures in education systems

The recently published Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have led education unions to reflect on school systems and the future of education.

In Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), Spain, and Australia, education unions have highlighted their main takeaways from the PISA survey published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on 3 December. The PISA measures 15-year-olds' ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills.

UK: A job well done in challenging circumstances

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), an EI affiliate in the UK, said that “securing high standards of teaching and learning depends on having highly motivated and committed teachers who have working conditions that enable them to focus on teaching in the classroom. This year's PISA results show teachers are doing a great job, but often under challenging circumstances. The union cautioned against using the PISA results to rank countries or jurisdictions.

The union added that, in terms of wellbeing, UK students seem to be less “likely to say they are satisfied in life than almost every other country”. It raised the concern that “fear of failure and the enormous pressure put on children and young people from the high-stakes accountability nature of testing in schools in the UK may be an important factor in this finding”.

US: School systems work

In the USA, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) linked the rise in teacher activism demanding more public investment and a decline in high-stakes testing with “an uptick in US PISA results”. AFT president Randi Weingarten said: “When you try to meet students’ instructional and socio-emotional needs, and listen to educators and parents — rather than penalise them based on test scores — you can start to move the needle.

“Still, we need to be cautious of the OECD’s league tables that compare apples with oranges and pit nations against each other. Instead of ranking countries with very different educational contexts, we should focus on the underlying research that shows school systems work when teachers are well-prepared and well-supported, and when students are not just presented with standards but given the tools to meet them.”

Germany: More investment in disadvantaged schools needed

In Germany, the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (German Education Union/GEW) voiced concern over the lack of support granted to “schools in difficult situations”. Given the strong correlation proven by PISA between academic achievement and the social and economic background of the pupils, EI’s German affiliate called for more investment in schools in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods. A decrease in education quality could also be attributed to a lack of teachers, it said. The union is calling for a nationwide effort to attract and retain new qualified staff.

The wellbeing of students and teachers was also highlighted by the GEW, and it cautioned against using the Chinese and Korean systems of education as examples based solely on their good results.

Spain: Austerity measures impacted on quality

In relation to Spain, education union FECCOO linked the low performance of Spanish students directly to the conservative education reform of its law, LOMCE (Organic Law for Improving Education Quality). The union has called for LOMCE to be revised and for a new framework that puts effective learning at its core while avoiding segregation and discrimination. Austerity measures and reduced investment in infrastructure and staff had taken a toll on the general quality of the education system, the union said. It called on the recently elected social democratic government to devise a new proposal to remedy the situation.

Australia: A system of ‘haves and have nots’

The Australian Education Union (AEU) also regretted the impact of austerity measures and cuts in education in its country. It said that PISA highlighted the federal government’s equity funding gaps for public schools. AEU President Correna Haythorpe said that the PISA report held no surprises for teachers who worked in disadvantaged settings. “Resource gaps are evident in the Morrison Government’s school-funding architecture and this has a big impact at the school level in terms of staffing and learning programmes,” Haythorpe said. “The Morrison Government’s policy of school-funding inequity is short-changing a generation of Australian students by creating a system of ‘haves and have nots’.”

According to the report, the gap between the highest and lowest achievers in Australian schools was much greater than the OECD average. “Our teachers do a superlative job in teaching all students, but PISA shows that a gap persists in the performance of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds as compared to lower socio-economic backgrounds,” Haythorpe said. “The extra teaching resources that would become available by ensuring that all schools are funded at 100 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) benchmark is key in closing this performance gap.”