England should start preparing pupils for the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests if it wants to climb the international education rankings, a schools’ leader representing hundreds of secondaries has claimed.
 
Sir John Rowling is chair of the PiXL (Performance in Excellence) Club, which advises its 650 secondary schools on the best ways to ensure their exam results are as good as possible.
 
He told TES that the government and schools should take the same rigorous approach to improve the country’s performance in Pisa, which will have its latest results published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tomorrow.
 
Sir John fears England will lose out because other countries are taking the tests for 15-year-olds more seriously and doing more to ensure their pupils perform well.
 
“Every test I know, from driving tests to Oxbridge exams, people prepare for them,” Sir John said. “But I have never known anybody prepare for Pisa [in England], never.

“Maybe that’s what the government wants. Maybe it’s what Pisa wants too and if everybody else is doing that, fair enough.

“But if other [countries] are not doing that then you are not comparing like with like.”

Sir John is offering PiXL’s help in raising England’s Pisa performance and has already asked his staff to research what could be done. The club has previously suggested controversial methods of boosting exam performance, such as simultaneous English IGCSE and GCSE entries. The idea was condemned by the Government as “cynical”.
 
But Sir John is equally critical of the government’s attitude towards Pisa. “There is huge suspicion that it is convenient politically at the moment to take tests that say we are flopping down the tables because it proves the point that education is broken,” he said.

He argues that the way ministers have portrayed England’s Pisa performance is counter-productive. “I am very concerned that judgements made when people are doing this sort of thing are damaging,” Sir John said. “Make no mistake [when the results are published] the morale of the profession will take another whack around the ears.

“Schools will be told: ‘again you’re hopeless’, ‘again you’ve messed up’, ‘again you’re no good’, ‘sort yourselves out’. All that sort of stuff doesn’t do any good and it doesn’t solve the problem either.”

One solution, he says, would be to spend more time getting pupils familiar with the style of tests used by Pisa.

“I am absolutely sure that there is lack of preparation,” he said. “In many schools there is almost no preparation. In fact I think you are dissuaded from preparing people.”

“I think if people realise in our business that this is taken really seriously it would be a step forward.”

Sir John is not the first to suggest that Pisa is not taken seriously enough in England. Last month TES revealed new academic research suggesting that some of the countries’ heads had filled in questionnaires – used to collect vital contextual information for Pisa – with little thought and just ticked the same box for every question.

Reacting to the findings from German and Canadian academics, Gabriel Sahlgren, Centre for Market Reform of Education, research director, said: “In the UK it suggests that schools do not take Pisa that seriously, whereas in other countries they take it more much more seriously.”
 
In Wales, which has suffered disappointing results in Pisa, the survey is at the top of education agenda. Last year the Welsh government published a guide for teachers, designed to show how they should incorporate Pisa into their lessons.
 
And in Scotland the government produced a motivational film for pupils taking the Pisa tests, telling them they are representing their country and encouraging them to “do your best for yourself and for Scotland”.
 
Sir John’s approach would bring England more into line with the other home nations. He insists it is not about “gaming” or “cheating” but about portraying the country in the best possible light.
 
The former head also wants to know how the schools and pupils that take the Pisa tests for England are selected. He is concerned that pupils at a secondary modern in Kent are among those who have participated in Pisa.
 
Inevitably they are going to do badly,” he said. “Is there a commensurate number of grammar-school kids to balance the kids in this secondary modern?”

But the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), which implements Pisa in the UK, said that all countries had to follow “strict international sampling procedures to ensure comparability of countries’ samples”. In the UK, the sampling took into account whether schools were selective and their GCSE performance. 

Rebecca Wheater, UK National Manager for Pisa at the NFER said: “All countries have to meet very stringent sampling and response rate criteria for their results to be included in the international database and it is not possible to meet these requirements if only high-performing schools are sampled.”
 
She added: “The Pisa survey is a research project and to treat it as a high-stakes test would misunderstand the purpose of the survey. We would not recommend efforts to improve performance by teaching to the test.
 
“We do signpost publicly-released test items to participating schools so that pupils can familiarise themselves with Pisa question types.” 
 
The Department for Education declined to comment.