Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Poland's rapid advance up the education league table

As a professional watcher of the major international rankings, I've been eagerly awaiting the results of the OECD PISA survey, which compares the educational attainments of 15 year-olds in state schools across nations. Unlike Doing Business or the Corruption Perception Index, PISA appears every third year, so the results show stronger trends.

Poland has done staggeringly well in the survey published today. Out of 65 countries surveyed this time round (mainly rich-world OECD nations but others too), Poland came 9th in science, 14th in maths, and 10th in reading literacy. If we go back to the the 2009 PISA survey, Poland came 19th in science, 25th in maths and 15th in reading. So an extremely good result for Polish schoolchildren, their teachers and the educational system, showing huge progress.

But take a look at the overall rankings. It is Asia that rules. In maths, the top seven positions are countries from the Far East, followed by four European states (including Liechtenstein), then Poland with Canada. In reading, six of the ten top positions go to the Far East. Three European countries (including Poland) and Canada make the remainder of the ten. It's the same in science.

The UK and US are both way behind the Asian achievers and the Polish pupils. In reading, the UK makes 23rd place, the US 24th. In maths, it's UK in 26th place, the US in 36th place(!). In science, it's UK 21st place, the US 28th.

I'm sure there will be self-congratulatory pieces in the Polish press tomorrow about this - all good news to be sure, but what's driving this progress?

My own belief is that Polish society has always had a strong appreciation of the importance of education throughout all strata of society; the economic slowdown of the last few years has heightened the sense that you are what you've learned, and that you will not go far in life if you don't push yourself. The Asian countries - from free-market Singapore to communist Vietnam - all share the same conviction that only learning can set one apart from the toiling masses - and the cult of education there is pursued there with relentless vigour, even at the cost of childhood itself.

"Your education today is your economy tomorrow," says Andreas Schleicher of OECD, the man behind the PISA ranking. He is right - of all the lead indicators in economics, here is one that can show five to ten years ahead the quality of the young people entering the labour force.

Britain uses school education as a moat behind which the elite can continue to rise and rule; in Poland its a ladder up which anyone with the drive to climb it can make a better life for themselves.

It is a different story when ranking universities however; here the US and UK rule the roost. But then the majority of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were privately educated.

This time last year:
Men's health, Polish-style

This time six years ago:
Son Eddie is 12 today
[which mathematically makes him 18 today! Happy birthday, my Adult Son!]


Andrzej K said...

Just a pity that Polish schools fail dismally to instil team work which has been a relatively strong point of the British system. The emphasis appears to be on individual rote learning of facts. These are easily tested - general skills required to do well in the modern world are not.

Anonymous said...

I would question the independence of the tests. Polish schools and honest marking dont go hand in hand and exam cheating seems to be rife here. Teamwork is non existent and problem solving is very poor. Stil a way to go for Poland

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Andrzej K:
The opposite is also true - UK schools have ditched rote learning in favour of touchie-ism and feelie-ism. Agreed that teaching of vital life skills in Poland is somewhat lacking.

@ Anonymous - the tests are standardised across all countries. The methodology is the same. I took the maths test online yesterday; not something you can easily cheat.

Anonymous said...

Happy B-Day to Eddie!!!
I'm sure it was a day to celebrate.


Glad to see that Canada is hanging in there with its stats.