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David Laws Talks PISA, Assessments And ‘Hands-On’ Policymaking

January 25, 2018, 16:05 GMT+1
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  • The former Schools Minister and now head of the Education Policy Institute shares his thoughts on how English schools compare globally, and recalls some ‘hands-on’ policymaking...
David Laws Talks PISA, Assessments And ‘Hands-On’ Policymaking

A report produced by the EPI last year indicated that grades earned by secondary pupils in England compare unfavourably to the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada in maths and English. What factors might be involved?
That report on secondary school standards essentially found that we’re not in the group of world-leading countries – we’re at or around average, and have been stable at that level since the introduction of the PISA rankings.

Some of it may relate to specific challenges in our system, including the low levels of investment in early years, and the fact that a large part of the gap starts very early on in young people’s lives. There may be cultural factors involved too. We know that some studies into the differences in PISA scores have highlighted interesting issues, such as the fact that some students who have only recently migrated from the top performing countries continue to do quite well in countries where the level of average attainment is much lower.

Are there any fact-finding educational visits you’ve made to other countries that have really stayed with you?
Some of the visits I’ve made have highlighted the difference in the professional development of teachers in other countries, and the extent of the support, commitment and CPD available there. But I can also remember some cautionary tales about superficial international comparisons, particularly the tendency for all countries to look abroad and assume that there’s something ‘going on’ that must be automatically ‘better’ without understanding the context.

I once visited Sweden to look at their evolving educational forms, and discovered when I got there that many people I’d wanted to talk to weren’t in the country at the time – because they were simultaneously on a fact-finding tour of England looking at our accountability systems and Ofsted, having seen those, rather than their own free school innovations, as the answer to all their problems.

What are your views on the government’s plans to introduce baseline assessments at age 4 to measure primary progress?
We think it’s a positive move for two reasons. Firstly, it’ll put more focus on the assessment of children early on in their educational journey, on understanding what their starting point is, and maybe on some of the challenges they face to being able to learn effectively. Anything we can do that relates to early diagnosis and action where people need additional assistance ought to be useful.

We believe that a fair evaluation of schools and understanding of school performance requires looking at the value schools are adding to those education journeys, rather than the raw attainment data of pupils, which might simply tell you what their socioeconomic background is.

It makes sense to judge primary schools and earlier education on progress. Without a baseline, you’re only looking at half the picture if you’re trying to assess progress between KS1 and KS2.

In your view, could a National Funding Formula represent a positive step towards tackling nationwide attainment gaps?
I think it’s sensible to have a NFF, since the existing distribution of education funding clearly isn’t properly linked to pupil characteristics. Given that we have a national education system in England, it makes sense for there to be a NFF underlying it. However, the degree to which money is redistributed will be limited by the fact that the government won’t want certain schools to see big declines in their budgets, and doesn’t have lots of new money to put into the system as a whole, so those who should be gaining won’t gain a lot.

What would you most like your time as Schools Ministers to be remembered for?
There are two big things we did of which I’m very proud. One was my party’s role in delivering significantly more funding through the Pupil Premium for disadvantaged pupils, because I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve got in English education – the gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other pupils. Through the Pupil Premium we put in a massive amount of extra money that was very helpful to schools in disadvantaged areas, and a high level accountability system that gave schools flexibility about the types of policy they could use to close the gap.

I also think we were able to change some accountability measures in education in a way that helped to drive out some lower quality qualifications that had been used to ‘game’ league tables, and worked to encourage students – not least those at 16 – into pursuing a wider curriculum by focusing on eight subjects rather than five. By placing more emphasis on progress, schools were given an incentive to focus on improving the education of all of their pupils, rather than the more undesirable incentive there was under the ‘five good A* to Cs’ measure, which caused schools to focus only on getting pupils over grade (and accountability) borderlines.

Can you call to mind any particular incidents or anecdotes to illuminate the policymaking process inside the DfE at the time?
I can remember when new teacher tests were about to be introduced for maths, English and logic in 2013. I took my red box home over the weekend, which contained examples of the new test teachers had to take in order to qualify. I tried some of the tests myself, including the logic one, and discovered that I’d got a number of the questions wrong before coming to the realisation that I’d actually been right then and the answers were wrong.

I got the Permanent Secretary and chief analyst to both take the test – I think even Michael Gove might have tried some of the questions – and we found that all of us got a number of them wrong. After weighing up whether the answers were actually correct, we ended up abolishing the logic test altogether, because we thought it wasn’t very reliable.

Enters the financial services industry, working for JP Morgan and latterly Barclays de Zoete Wedd

Retires from the financial sector to become a research assistant for the Liberal Democrats

Elected as Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Yeovil

Appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, but resigns after 17 days

Returns to government as Minister of State for Schools

Joins the Education Policy Institute as Executive Chairman