Turning mediocre PISA results into a good news story – or how the BBC swallowed a government press release

An article on the BBC website carries the headline “Record levels of Scottish school leavers going into work, training or study”. Similar stories ran across other Scottish media, reporting that the proportion of school leavers achieving a “positive initial destination” reached 91.4 per cent in October 2013, the highest level on record.

All these reports show a striking similarity to a Scottish Government press release. Most quoted heavily from the Education Secretary, Mike Russell, repeating his claim that ‘earlier this month the OECD rated Scotland as doing at least as well as, if not better than, a number of leading world economies in literacy, numeracy and science’. None of the journalists concerned appear to have undertaken any investigation of their own, but rather took the press release on trust, and swallowed all of the claims that it made.

The first claim concerns the ‘record’ number of school-leavers entering ‘positive initial destinations’. You’d think that a journalist would be curious about this term, but instead they seem to have assumed that it meant employment, education or training. These are certainly included in the concept of ‘positive initial destinations’, but it also includes voluntary work, and the new Activity Agreements introduced in 2010-11.

If we compare the most recent figures with the previous year, we see the following pattern:

  • The proportion entering higher education fell by 0.8%
  • the proportion entering further education fell by 1.1%
  • the proportion in full-time training rose by 0.4%
  • the proportion in employment rose by 0.6%
  • the proportion covered by activity agreements rose by 0.4%
  • the proportion in voluntary work rose by 0.1%

In other words, what we see is a small fall in the numbers who stay in full-time education, and a small rise in the number who enter jobs or become trainees. This is exactly what we would expect if overall economic activity rates are rising, and the youth labour market is favourable. And the data are silent on whether young people entering work are receiving training, and on the quality of that training.

Then we come to Mike Russell’s claim on PISA. There are well-known technical and design limitations to the PISA survey, but let’s leave these to one side. The findings for Scotland indicate that 15-year-olds were slightly ahead of their English counterparts on literacy and maths and slightly behind them on science. In each case, the difference was so minor as to fall within the margin for error.

The English Secretary of Education is dissatisfied that English children still fall behind their counterparts in Scandinavia and the Asian nations. The Scottish Secretary of Education, on very similar scores to England’s, describes the results as evidence of world class standards.

In both cases, the media meekly followed the lines set out in the respective sets of government press releases. Are education journalists in a position to hold government and education systems to account, and subject them to public scrutiny? And if not, what is to be done to promote an informed public?

MOOCs as a form of furtive learning

For the last three weeks, I’ve been a student again. I’m following a MOOC offered by FutureLearn, an offshoot of the Open University in partnership with a number of other institutions. And I have to report that so far, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Most of the pleasure comes from following a subject in which I am interested, but I’m also deeply interested in how a MOOC actually feels on the receiving end. The flexibility is highly impressive: I can study a little segment as and when I have the time, and I can do it wherever I want. I am not going to list all the places where I have MOOCed, but suffice to say that they include the kitchen and my car – anywhere that involves waiting, or an activity that doesn’t involve my conscious brain. And it is reasonably sociable too; the discussion space is busy and noisy and very friendly.

So far, so predictable. I’ve also learned some things I didn’t expect. The very flexibility of a MOOC makes it easy to wander off and do something else. The fact that I can walk around studying on my iPad also means that my MOOC has to compete with email, Twitter, Facebook and other digital distractions – it is so easy to flick the screen, and forget that you were supposed to be studying for another 20 minutes.

I’ve also discovered that MOOCs offer an extremely furtive form of learning. Although I tweeted about the MOOC, and mentioned it to several friends, I didn’t tell my partner about it. She can hear that I’m listening to something or viewing something on my iPad, but presumably she thinks I’m catching up on the News Quiz or haltingly working on my Portuguese. And now it’s become a sort of experiment, where I keep quiet about the MOOC and wait to see whether she’ll notice how fabulously well-informed I am on everyday life in medieval England.

MOOCs are not necessarily anonymous, but they do allow you to manage disclosure in a way that most other forms of organised learning to not. The course designers have clearly tried to draw on adult education practices of group work and create a community of learners, but they have little control over how the masses participate. A participant can lurk online, reading the debates but not contributing. Or they can invent a new name, and for that matter a whole new identity, as part of their studies. No one will ever know. Meanwhile, their most intimate friends and family can be completely ignorant of why their loved one is suddenly spending time on the iPad.

Does this furtive possibility matter? I think it probably has some influence on the pedagogic relationship, but I’m not sure how. And it presumably shapes the ways in which learners are co-creating knowledge as they work their way through their MOOC. Either way, I find this all very interesting, and am looking forward to the next hour or so on my tablet.


Well, my partner did not know I was taking a MOOC until I blogged about it. I didn’t know she followed my blog until she asked about my MOOC. The question she put to me was this: “Do you have to pay for it?” (yes, she is a Scot). The answer is that I don’t, which is a very good reason for taking the MOOC (yes, I’ve spent a lot of my life in Yorkshire).


Reflecting on the death of Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s death has been marked by virtually universal grief, even among those who once supported apartheid. My first significant exposuire to political activity came through the anti-apartheid movement, so I’m going to go ‘off topic’, and reflect on what Mandela meant to a previous generation of anti-apartheid activists.

Mandela was charismatic and appealing as a political leader. And there can be little doubt that he played a major role, not just in the transition from apartheid, but in determining that the transition was a peaceful one. He took risks to build bridges, not just between white and black South Africans, but also with the Cape Coloured community, who felt abandoned by both of the major racial groupings. His decision to embrace the once-hated Springbok rugby side, and to wear the green jersey at the World Cup, was a brave one. Tt worked – though the task of reassuring the Afrikaaners was helped by the fact that South Africa went on to lift the trophy.

But this last week has also taught me something about the different generations of anti-apartheid activists. I’d never heard of Mandela when I became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. I heard a few speakers from the ANC, of course, but I also listened to leaders of the black South African trade union movement (the white unions refused to enrol black members) and increasingly to members of the student movement. Many of them were exiles in Britain – and I was proud that my university funded a yearly South African scholarship, paid half by the student union and half by staff donations.

When I did hear of Mandela, there was no reason to single him out as special. The fact that he was a communist didn’t endear him to the libertarian left, who saw his party as a handmaiden of Soviet imperialism abroad and a devious force attempting to control the official Anti-Apartheid movement at home. Anyway, like many on the libertarian left I was highly suspicious of the cult of personality, so I was distinctly unimpressed when the movement started to focus on one single figure. After all, there were many political prisoners: if anything, I knew far more about Steve Biko than Mandela.

With a young family and a job, I didn’t even think of travelling to join the four-year-long free Mandela picket outside the South African embassy in London. I boycotted South African products, and refused an invitation to a conference (probably mistakenly as it turned out), and I applied and was shortlisted for a job in southern Africa with the Commonwealth Trades Union Congress (which I failed to get).

I looked with some scepticism at the new campaigners with their Mandela concerts and portrait posters. But boy, it helped that the steady drudge of letter writing, lobbying and demonstrating – described in detail by Roger Fieldhouse in his history of the movement – was lent some glamour by musicians and actors, the big name events and media debates that eventually turned Mandela into the world’s biggest celebrity politician. It is much to his credit that the old fighter treated his celebrity status as a political tool, blunting any criticism with self-effacing modesty – to the point of telling the Spice Girls that meeting them was the greatest moment of his life (who knows whether they grasped the irony).

And it’s not very edifying to see people scrabbling for the borrowed glitter of Mandela’s name. What we did in Britain was small beer. We renamed some streets, and reduced our consumption of imported fruit; we probably undermined our governments’ reluctance to support sanctions. We certainly messed up a few sporting encounters against whites-only touring sides. But we didn’t stop the supply of arms, and Britain continued to be South Africa’s largest export market.

The struggle against apartheid took place within South Africa, not here. It wasn’t about rock concerts and meetings above a nice pub; it could often be vicious and deadly, not only on the side of the brutally oppressive police and army, but also sometimes on the side of the ANC (remember ‘necklacing’?). It long predated the ‘free Mandela’ campaign, and it isn’t over yet. And I suspect that Mandela and the ANC’s legacy will be pored over by historians for some time to come.

All the same, I am glad to have supported, from afar, apartheid’s replacement by what is still an open and democratic society, and increasingly a multiracial one. And as a lifelong rugby fan, I found the Springboks’ tribute to Mandela – a small thing in itself – a fantastic acknowledgement of his role in turning a white-only sport into a symbol of multiracial reconciliation and hope.

More evidence on the benefits of adult learning – the OECD Adult Skills Survey

Plenty of people have commented on the relative performance of different nations in the OECD’s Adult Skills Survey. Relatively few have picked up on the wider messages that are based on results from all the 24 participating states. Here, I’ll just focus on those that relate to the benefits of adult learning.

First, the survey provides clear and compelling evidence of the association between adult skills and economic outcomes. This, you might think, is obvious: of course skills help you stay in work and raise your earnings. But rather than relying simply on intuition, it does help to have robust evidence of the consistent effect of adult skills on earnings and on employability. And the survey findings confirm other studies pointing clearly in this direction.

Further, the results add to our understanding of the wider benefits of learning. In all the countries surveyed, people with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and to play no role in associative or volunteer activities. In most of the countries surveyed, they are also less likely to trust others. Anyone who teaches adults will probably snort with derision, as they must have seen these changes with every group they have supported, but once more it is good to have robust evidence.

These effects are not massive, partly because adult learning is so strongly associated with prior education, but they point to a significant and clear independent impact from learning. The challenge for policy makers will be to focus public policy on supporting learning that attracts those who did not benefit the most from school and university earlier in their lvies. Is this best done by targeted initiatives, or by building a broad learning culture?

The survey also provides insights into the relationship between skills and wider inequalities. I will write about those separately. Meanwhile, it is good to see that it confirms other research on the role of adult learning in helping people change their lives.