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?


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