Globalisation and Education – Part Three

Russell Haggar

Site Owner


Part One

·        Introduction: The Nature of Globalisation: Summary

·        Globalisation and Education Policies: General

·        Globalisation Political Parties and Ideologies

Part Two

·        Globalisation, Education Policy and Quasi-Marketisation

·        Quasi-Marketisation, Endogenous Privatisation and Exogenous Privatisation

·        Vocational Education

Part Three

·        Globalisation and International Comparisons of Educational Effectiveness: Tests: PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS

Part Four

·        Globalisation, Immigration and Education

·        Education and the Prevent Strategy

·        Coronavirus, The State and Globalisation

Part Five

·      Globalisation and Education Policies: Some Summary Criticisms


Since in the globalized economy the effectiveness of education policies has been seen as a key factor affecting international economic competitiveness and hence future living standards governments have become increasingly aware of other governments’ education policies and have tended to adopt policies which have appeared to be successful in other countries. However, it is important to note the general point that Governments [ including the UIK Government] have their own ideological positions and that it has been argued that they may cite international data selectively to justify national policies which conform to their own ideological preferences.


One early example of the international transference of educational policies  was the Labour Government’s introduction in 1998 of the  Literacy  and  Numeracy Hour in Primary schools which was  influenced by the processes of Mathematics teaching in Taiwanese primary schools which were regarded as particularly effective.. Click here for some further details.

Also, in their 2010 General Election Manifesto the Conservative Party pointed to what they saw as the effectiveness of USA Charter Schools and Swedish Free Schools as influences on their own decisions to expand the existing Academies Programme and to introduce Free Schools. Once the Coalition Government was formed the then Secretary of State for Education claimed that “All the academic evidence from Sweden  shows that  more Free Schools means higher standards” and “ the evidence from not only Swedish Free Schools but from American Charter Schools  shows that  such schools  help to close the gap between  the poorest and the wealthiest children.” Clearly Coalition and Conservative Governments education policies on free schools and academies have been influenced by these international comparisons.

However, controversies around academies and Free Schools continues. Subsequent PISA test results for Sweden showed a considerable decline and although some analysts claimed that this could to some extent be explained by the poor performance of Swedish Free Schools this did not in any way reduce Conservative support for Free Schools all of which perhaps suggests a rather pragmatic, flexible approach to international comparisons.



Click here for an informative House of Lords Library Briefing on Free Schools [January 2019]

Click here and here and here for the deterioration of Sweden’s PISA test results

From 2000 onwards the OECD began to publish their Program for Student Assessment [PISA] test results and other influential reports have been the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMMS] and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study [PIRLS} reports.  

The triennial PISA tests began in 2000 and 79 countries [ of which 37 were OECD countries and 42 were partner countries] took part in the latest tests in 2018. About 600,000 students worldwide took part in the tests while in the UK about 14,000 students in 459 schools participated. To collect data for their reports the OECD arrange for samples of 15-year-old students in the participating countries to sit tests aiming to assess their abilities to apply their reading, mathematical and scientific knowledge to the solution of real-life problems.  In 2018 there was also a test on Global Competence. The tests last for 2 and a half hours and the students also complete a questionnaire relating to their attitudes to school, their current state of well- being and their hopes for the future. School principals also completed questionnaires on school management and organisation and the learning environment and some but not all countries distributed additional questionnaires to class teachers, parents and pupils.

Expert analysts, however, claim that the tests are not without their defects and the following criticisms have been made of The PISA tests.

It is widely argued that the educational success of students from China and South East Asia depends more on the cultural attitudes of the students than on specific teaching methods adopted and that educational methods which appear to be successful in some countries will not necessarily be successful in a country where cultural attitudes are different

 For valid international comparisons to be made it would be necessary to obtain representative samples from each participating country but for several reasons such samples may be difficult to achieve.

There are international differences in enrolment rates of 15-year-old students and although such differences are small as between OECD countries, they are considerable as between OECD countries and poorer countries. The PISA data relate only to enrolled 15-year-olds rather than to all 15-year-olds and since in the poorer countries it is the poor and disadvantaged students who are less likely to enrolled, data for these countries must be treated with care.

Also, schools chosen for participation by PISA may choose not to participate and within schools which do participate some students may refuse to participate and each of the factors reduce the representativeness of the samples. Various mechanisms are used by PISA to correct for these problems, but these corrective mechanisms are not fully effective.

It may reasonably be argued that by concentrating on Reading, Mathematics and Science the PISA tests are excluding other important aspects of education and so fail to provide a fully rounded picture of students’ education.

The tests may be seen by schools, students and parents as essentially “low status tests” in comparison with, say, GCSEs and A levels and if the tests are not taken seriously this reduces the reliability and validity of the results

Nevertheless, the results of the PISA tests are given very wide coverage in the mass media, and it is argued that the results may have considerable influence over government education policies as governments are likely to adopt some of the education policies which are being used by countries ranking highly in the tests.

For example, it was noted that Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong topped the 2012 Pisa Mathematics rankings whereas the UK had finished in 26th place and the UK Government subsequently arranged for teacher exchanges between England and Shanghai and the introduction of Shanghai teaching methods into arrange of English Middle schools. However additional problems arose in relation to this policy initiative in that it is widely argued that the educational success of students from China and South East Asia depends more on the cultural attitudes of the students than on specific teaching methods adopted and that educational methods which appear to be successful in some countries will not necessarily be successful in a country where cultural attitudes are different.

 It was pointed out also that the Shanghai Mathematics teachers are specialists who teach only Mathematics which is not the case in English middle schools. A detailed report published in 2019 concluded that this initiative had had little or no impact on the Mathematics standards of English pupils

  Click here for an article summarising the results of the above mentioned report. The article also contains some references to the TIMMS tests

The PISA test Results of 2018 were published in December 2019 and indicate that the UK had risen quite significantly in the rankings in Reading., Science and Mathematics.  It was claimed in some sections of the mass media that this showed that recent Conservative Education reforms had proved to be effective although the coverage of the results in the Schoolsweek magazine noted that the improved results could not necessarily be linked to the Conservative education reforms.


Click here for a BBC article on the PISA 2018 results published December 2019

Click here for a Schoolsweek article      which notes that although UK Mathematics results have improved this cannot necessarily be linked to the Gove educational reforms.

Click here for a Policy Exchange article on the 2018 PISA tests which links the UK’s improved rankings to the Gove /Gibb reforms

Click here for a recent article from fft educationdatalab on relationships between PISA tests and GCSE grades and here for the technicalities around UK PISA tests



In general terms it is argued that governments may use the results of the PISA tests to support their own education policy agendas. They may use the PISA test results to support policies which they had intended to introduce in any case and/or interpret improvements in PISA rankings as proving the effectiveness pf existing government education policies even when the links between the PISA rankings and specific education policies are not proved. Since the 2018 PISA results were published during the 2019 General Election campaign politicians’ statements concerning the results needed to be interpreted with especial care at that time.

A Note on TIMSS and PIRLS Tests

The TIMSS study measures Trends in International Mathematics and Science and the PIRLS study measures Progress in International Reading Literacy. The general issues raised by these studies are similar to those raised by the PISA study and I shall not consider the details of the TIMSS and PIRLS studies here. Interested students may follow the links below for detailed information on these studies.

Click here and here and here and here  and here for TIMSS

Click here and here an here and here for PIRLS

Return to Part One

Or visit  Part Four