To what extent should international comparisons affect a national curriculum? Should we be listening to international evidence or just ignore it?
It is a question that Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, sought to address at a recent major educational conference.
His speech, Using International Comparisons to Refine the National Curriculum in England, debated the topical issue of international comparisons – such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The audience at the London Mayor’s Education Conference heard that there are arguments on both sides. Some say we can learn nothing from other systems, while others say we can learn everything. Neither is the right approach, Mr Oates argued.
Instead we can learn something, he said, providing we keep "a keen eye, informed by sound theory on how education systems work – with due regard to history, culture and complex interactions".
We need to be careful, though, because as Mr Oates explained there are a number of myths about high-performing jurisdictions. For instance, the claim that we can no longer learn from Finland as its educational performance is declining. Far from it, Mr Oates said – Finland has a lot to teach us about teacher training, the model of ability in primary, the nature of learning support for all pupils of both high and low attainment.
Turning to England, he denied that the education system was somehow “in crisis”, saying it was instead going through “a period of chronic statis”. It is for this reason, Mr Oates, argued, that domestically we have something to learn from overseas.
Mr Oates argued there were clear "stand-out elements" in fast-improving jurisdictions, including a focus on teaching fewer things in greater depth at primary level; ‘curriculum coherence’; and the acquisition of both knowledge and skills - and not one at the expense of the other.
"We can benchmark standards internationally – we can identify what is humanly possible for nine, 10, 11-year-olds, and the possibility of high equity, high attainment, and high enjoyment," he said.
He concluded by saying that to match the highest-performing systems countries need to align national and school curriculums, inspection, assessment, funding, professional development and accountability measures.
"I believe that the sophisticated appeal to domestic and international evidence is vital – and by being evidence-based, the England national curriculum developments are taking things in the right direction", he said.
You can read the full transcript of Mr Oates’ speech below.