From the TUC

Today’s PISA results and the Asian challenge

03 Dec 2013, by in Economics, Politics

Today’s PISA results have, quite rightly, provoked a vigorous debate about educational standards in the UK. In headline terms, out of a total of 34 countries, the UK scores 16th for reading, 19th for maths and 14th for science. PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, is run by the OECD every three years.

I hope the ensuing debate leads to some important lessons. The Sutton Trust, which campaigns for non-privileged students, has raised improving teacher performance in response to today’s report. Here at the TUC, we’ve criticised pointless shake-ups of schools by successive governments in recent years. The National Union of Teachers has highlighted how economic and social deprivation harms performance. The NUT has a point: we learned today that Shanghai has the world’s top performing education system, but Shanghai is a city – albeit a large one – not a country. If China as a whole had taken part, the story would have been different, as the massive gulf between richer and poorer areas of China would have been highlighted.

Nevertheless, the fact that Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – the four “little dragons” – are all in the top five for maths should give us pause for thought.

Next year, the TUC will publish a report looking at the growth of China and East Asia. Evidence from Singapore and South Korea, along with China, will be presented. These countries are set to play an ever-increasing role in the world economy during the next century.

Singapore’s education system has long been envied in the West and this is crucial to understanding that country’s growing economic success. Singapore is moving from what it calls its 3+1=4 to its 1+2=3 growth strategy. In recent years, Singapore’s GDP has increased by four per cent, but three per cent of this is based on population growth which, in the case of a country as small as Singapore, means immigration. Only one per cent of its growth has come from productivity improvements. Singapore now seeks to increase productivity growth to two per cent. Even if its headline increase in GDP falls to three per cent, it is confident that it is on track. Productivity growth is prioritised. Needless to say, if that is to be achieved, first class education is crucial.

South Korea is an interesting case, as it invests massively in education, but it faces a demographic problem. This is because, in their quest to have highly educated, highly successful children, Korean parents are having less children. They spend heavily on those children that they do have, but the overall birth rate is declining – and with the older population rising, this is storing up long-term problems.

As for China – well, China is China. Huawei, the largest telecoms company in the world, employs 140,000 people – 46 per cent of whom work in research and development. To work in R&D, of course, requires a first-class education. Today’s PISA report doesn’t give results for education in Shenzhen, where Huawei is based, but we can surmise that standards are very high in such a developed city. Victor Zhang, Huawei’s CEO in the UK, is part of David Cameron’s trade delegation to China this week.

This is what Asia, collectively, is doing and if the UK wants a slice of the pie in future, it needs to respond. In fact, this is not simply a UK problem. All European countries, even Germany, lag Asia in today’s PISA report, as does the US, whose prowess in education was, in my view, the biggest factor in leading it to superpower status in the 20th century.

This is a good week for these PISA results, as UK attention is fixed on China while our Prime Minister is making a three day visit to that country. How is he doing? Today’s Financial Times (£) has an editorial entitled ‘Cameron’s zig-zag approach to China’, with the sub-heading ‘Britain’s PM lurches clumsily from human rights to trade’.

This is tricky territory, of course, and all of us must stand up for human rights, including in China. As the FT goes on to argue, “All governments face a challenge reconciling trade with human rights concerns when dealing with authoritarian states”. But in my view, the stronger we are economically, the more difficult it will be to have our voice on these matters dismissed. In 2007, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, met the Dalai Lama. China cancelled talks with the German Justice Minister in response, yet today Germany is Europe’s biggest trading partner with China. Why? Because Germany has a strong economic policy and China needs the trade. China plays by these rules as well, of course. It upsets its trading partners in areas of geopolitics sometimes, but it knows that it can afford to, as other countries need the growth and jobs that comes with trading with the world’s fastest-growing power.

In two days time, the Chancellor will present his Autumn Statement. What better way to respond to today’s PISA report, and strengthen Britain’s economy to meet the Asian challenge, than by ditching failed austerity economics and increasing investment in education? Perhaps David Cameron, fresh from his Asian journey and buoyed by what he has seen, can have a quiet word in the ear of his neighbour in No 11 Downing Street, even at the last minute? That could be every bit as important as his China trip itself. I won’t be holding my breath, though!