PISA Rankings: A brief comparison of France and the UK

Yesterday, the PISA (Programme for International Assessment) OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings came out, and the comparison of the results in France and the UK is an interesting one to make.

The ranking was covered extensively in both the British and French press. France is currently in 25th place, with the UK in 26th place. This puts both countries firmly in the middle of the tables.

An article covering the issue in Libération yesterday stated that French children are generally within the national average, but that inequality between students was on the rise. That is to say, that students coming from a background of immigration were at least ten times more likely to have problems in school. This has worsened in relation to the situation in 2003. An article in The Guardian yesterday reported that the UK has relatively good results in terms of the attainment of immigrants, and a smaller gender gap then in many other countries.

In an interview yesterday with Le Monde, Maryline Baumard, head of the Education Service at Le Monde, analysed the French results and especially highlighted the slight lowering in French teenagers’ performance in Maths; France’s score went from 498 to 495. (The UK’s score is 494, ranking 26th). Baumard highlighted the fact that in France, ability in Maths is seen more as a way of separating the most gifted students from the rest, then as an actual talent in its-self. As, therefore, it is very important to perform well in Maths, it is pertinent to note that 65% of French teenagers declared themselves to be interested in what they are currently studying in Maths, in comparison to an overall average of 53% in the OECD report. Baumard also continued to say that the French system is effectively penalised by PISA for its ‘elitist’ system. That is to say, a system which divides students into ‘performers,’ or ‘non-performers,’ and leaves little space for those in the middle. She stated that the non-performing students in France were on the same level as Romania, or Cyprus, but that the best were on the level of Taiwan or Hong Kong. In the UK, the PISA report showed that the while the UK pumps a lot of money into education, the high proportion of under-achieving students stopped it from rising in the rankings. The average UK student is now three years behind those in Shanghai in Maths.

In terms of literacy, France is above the average of 496 points, with 505 points, but the UK only just tops the average, with 499 points, ranking 23rd. Nevertheless, this is up from in 2009, where the UK scored 494 points.  Another interesting point to note in France was that there was a forty-four point difference gap in the scores between boys and girls in literacy, with girls generally scoring higher, and therefore bringing the French average up.

Rosie Millard expressed the view in The Independent yesterday that the disappointing statistics for the UK aren’t very surprising, given that 9% of the population, thanks to their parents income, receive what she refers to as ‘The Rolls-Royce’ treatment, whereas the remaining 91% are left to fend for themselves in state schools. Yet, when presenting the PISA results in London, Andreas Schleicher, the co-ordinator of the PISA programme, said that; ‘Much of the advantage that comes from private schooling is confirmed by the social-economic context, not in value added.’ (www.theguardian.com/education/2013/dec/03/uk-students-education-oecd-pisa-report)  Millard attacks the UK schooling system as failing to inculcate into school children a sense of their own potential, which leads them to underachieve.

So, are teachers to blame? Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of Sutton Trust, was quoted in The Guardian yesterday about his views that the way for the UK’s rankings to improve was effectively to make the standard of the quality of teaching available much higher. He used the example of research carried out by Sutton Trust that showed that within the next 10 years, the UK could become one of the top five educations providers in the world, if teachers were brought up to the national average. In the same interview quoted above in Le Monde, Maryline Baumard said that in France, the two requirements for becoming a teacher were to excel in the subject being taught, and also be skilled in pedagogy. She believes that in France, recently, less emphasis has been put on the second requirement when recruiting teachers.

In the French press, much was made of the ‘failure’ of the French Republican school system, taken ‘hostage’ by Trade Unions. Le Figaro in particular was alarmist about the lowering of the Maths ranking. Yet in the UK, articles abounded in the Press filled with scepticism about the meaningfulness of PISA and whether or not we should be flagellating ourselves over these results.

In both France and the UK, recent reforms have been introduced by Micheal Gove and Vincent Peillon (French Minister for Education) respectively. In this PISA report, it is too early to see the results. Both countries will have to wait until 2015 to see what changes, or improvements these new reforms may bring.