Education bursts with myths: such as teachers don’t need qualifications, local authorities control schools and academies raise standards. But there are more, all of them easy to disprove. And it’s vital that they are

Many things widely supposed in education to be true, simply aren’t.

It’s widely supposed that choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success. Increase competition between schools and all schools will improve, that’s the theory. But it’s not accurate. The message from the successful London Challenge is that it’s collaboration not competition that raises educational quality. The OECD confirms this. Choice and competition as an improvement mechanism is a myth.

Another prevalent myth, especially in England, is that our state schools need an injection of private school DNA. Again, not true. The OECD found that when economic background is taken into consideration, UK state schools outperform UK private ones. And there’s an increasing body of evidence that shows state-educated students gained higher degrees than their equally qualified peers from private schools.

The Sutton Trust found students from comprehensive schools outperformed their equally qualified peers from both independent schools and state grammars. There’s another myth demolished – the one that claims comprehensive education has failed.

These myths, and four more, are exploded in the book I co-authored with Melissa Benn, co-founder of the Local Schools Network. It’s called School Myths: And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart. Between us we’ve disproved each of the seven myths and we’ve supplied evidence to back up what we say. Myths such as teachers don’t need qualifications, local authorities control schools and academies raise standards.

Censure doesn’t stop zombie statistics rising from the dead

But there were other myths we couldn’t include. I’ll deal with one of them here.

Remember how the United Kingdom was “plummeting” down league tables. It was splashed all over the media on in December 2010. The Daily Mail was typical:

“Travesty of our ‘stagnating’ schools”; “Britain has plummeted down worldwide education rankings…”; “…massive indictment of the last government’s education policy…”

These claims were backed up by a graph in red, green and blue that showed UK performance in PISA tests had tumbled since 2000.

But it wasn’t true. The OECD, which run the PISA tests, had warned in the UK briefing document published on the same day as the PISA 2009 results that no comparison should be made between the UK’s PISA results in 2000 and 2009 because the earlier results had been found to be flawed after their initial publication. But that prominent warning was ignored – not least by the Department for Education (DfE), which published the faulty figures. The DfE can’t say it didn’t know about the warning; it referred to it in its press release.

As well as ignoring this warning, which appeared in the second paragraph of the UK briefing paper, the DfE ignored other international tests that showed England in a more positive light: the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS), for example, showed England at the top of the European league in 2007 for science and maths in both age groups: 10 and 14 year-olds.

The plummeting down league table myth persisted for two years until the UK Statistics Authority censured the DfE for its misleading use of international test data. But this hasn’t stopped the zombie statistic from rising from the dead. Just ten days ago, education secretary Nicky Morgan told The Daily Telegraph that the education system when the coalition came to power was “chaotic, with Britain plummeting down international league tables and a third of all children leaving primary school unable to read, write or add up properly”.

Morgan’s statement about league tables is untrue. But she swerved around criticisms made by the UK statistics watchdog, not once but twice, that she was misleading the public when she had claimed a third of children were illiterate and innumerate when they left primary school. She did this by adding the adjective “properly”. But “properly” is imprecise and subjective. For some people, being unable to read “properly” would mean not being able to decode; for others it would be an inability to read Schools Week.

Education myths need destroying. Publishing the evidence that punctures them is essential. Then we will have the ammunition to pillory politicians who make misleading statements and deceive the electorate.

Janet Downs is a writer for Local Schools Network and the co-author of School Myths: And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart

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  1. Janet Downs

    It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when a writer criticizes someone else’s use of language that s/he will make an English howler.

    And so it’s proved to be.

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell readers – they would have spotted it immediately in the penultimate paragraph – that ‘properly’ is not an adjective. It’s an adverb.

    I can’t even pass it off as a ‘deliberate mistake’. That was my excuse when I taught English.

    Like the time I chalked ‘cemetary’ on the board with an Ofsted inspector in the room.

    Or when I wrote ‘rythm’ instead of rhythm.

    These were ‘deliberate mistakes’ to keep the pupils on their toes. They weren’t fooled. Not sure if the Ofsted inspector noticed, though.