The OECD is a powerful organisation that undoubtedly has done a huge amount of good in the world and has provided a backdrop particularly to the economic and social development of the European continent, since its foundation in 1961. The Wikipedia entry describes it as

…an intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade. It is a forum of countries describing themselves as committed to democracy and the market economy, providing a platform to compare policy experiences, seeking answers to common problems, identify good practices and coordinate domestic and international policies of its members.

Over 55 years it has carried this out principally through conferences and reports and by motivating and commissioning research and using its funding (from its member states) to model and develop policy and pieces of work that it then promulgates. In many respects it appears “independent”, or “scientific” or “evidence-based”, and for the most part this helps it. It is an organisation that I am glad to refer to, and the work of David Istance and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation has produced some timely and wise approaches to the business of education. Its work on the brain and learning is a useful summary of what we know about the relevance of modern neurosciences.

However, it is actually not independent at all. It is wedded to market freedoms and western democratic models, and as a direct result it is both an adherent of and a promulgator of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM). Listening as I have done on numerous occasions to Andreas Schleicher, one of its most prominent researchers and spokesmen, I have been often dismayed by the unwillingness to see anything else but education in the service of a global economy underpinning his arguments. Their flagship test, PISA, measures essentially those attributes that OECD and its sponsor governments think are worth measuring. Nobody considers it worthwhile to measure progress for 14 year-olds in music or drama or the visual arts. So whilst we can seek for a more holistic approach to education, we will get no help from the OECD, not whilst the word “economic” is the adjective in its title. OECD has a very high standing among governments, and as a result it makes the assumption, common among those who see “sharing best practice” as the answer to everything, that what works in the education system of one member state must have applicability and measurability in another member state. What works well in Finland or Alberta must be of direct applicability to Wales or Spain. And of course, being transnational, it assumes that educational outcomes in each country are to be put to the service of the global economy. It makes a chronic assumption that each country needs to generate more scientists so that the world economy can grow, as though this was a good thing.

I believe this this to be fundamentally a wrong supposition, meaning, unfortunately, that its entire oeuvre is predicated on a lie. It only has value to the extent that all other western economies are predicated upon the identical lie. This would not matter if the OECD restricted its view of education to that which had a direct impact upon the economic development of its member states. Perhaps it does; perhaps I malign it unnecessarily.  However, member states perceive the work of the OECD with such high importance that only those things that it measures are deemed to matter, and the national governments are complicit in the GERM view of the world that sees educational reform as fundamentally geared to serving the national economy. The national curricula, the accountability measures, the competitive framework in which schools suffer – all of these ignore the diversity, curiosity and imagination of humanity, and are a direct reflection of a desperation among our political masters to “do well” in the PISA rankings each time they are published.

As if this was not enough, we now have PISA for 5 year olds, the International Early Learning Study, IELS, which you can’t even say properly (“yells?” – this might be appropriate for some 5 year olds). The call for tenders for this new venture went out last year and had to be in by February. So tough, if you were excited.

Peter Moss from the Institute of Education, along with others from Europe and North America, have published a critique both of this tender document (all that is available at the moment) and of the thinking behind it. The paper is published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood.

A handy summary of the main conclusions is found on the IoE blog today, under the title “Is an early years PISA what we want for our young children?”

I have only read the blog article, but it seems so important I am reproducing Peter Moss’ conclusions here – many of them tally strongly with my instinctive worries about the OECD and the uses to which it puts its metrics. So with grateful acknowledgements to the IoE Blog, from which this text is taken, here are the main conclusions from Moss et al. (2016):

  1. Education is firstly a political issue, raising political questions with alternative and often conflicting answers. Yet the OECD makes no attempt to set out its political questions or to argue for its choices. Instead it treats early childhood education and the proposed study as if they are purely technical practices, epitomising what the IOE’s Paul Morris (2016) has described as a “drive to position policymaking as a technocratic exercise, to be undertaken by an elite band of experts who are immune to the influence of politics and ideology”. (HH comment: this is what I argue for above, that policy seems “neutral” whereas it is anything but. The OECD researchers seem to imagine that if something is technical, it is therefore neutral and “above” political criticism. It is not. At the extreme end of this, bomb-making is technical.)
  2. Adopting a technical facade, the OECD implies that its conclusions and recommendations are self-evident, objective and incontestable. They are anything but that. It adopts a particular paradigmatic position, that might be described as hyper-positivistic. It values objectivity, universality, predictability and what can be measured. It chooses to work with certain disciplines, notably particular branches of psychology (child development) and economics (human capital). It assumes an economic and political model of a world of more of the same, for which we must ‘future-proof’ children through the application of human technologies. Of course, the OECD is free to choose its position. However, it should be aware that it has made a choice and taken a particular perspective. It should also be aware that there are other choices and other perspectives. Yet on both counts it shows a total lack of self-awareness. (HH comment: again, this is dealt with above – all research is done through a particular worldview, and OECD’s worldview is simply one of a number of competing ones)
  3. Reading the IELS documentation, you might be forgiven for thinking that its precursor, PISA, had not been the subject of criticism. But it has, and the IELS fails to engage with those criticisms, which apply as much to comparative testing of 5-year-olds as 15-year-olds. Some are of a technical nature, with, as Gorur (2014) argues, a “vast literature that critiques aspects of [PISA’s] methodology”. But there are more substantive issues, for example PISA’s failure to address complexity, context and causality, and an implied but naïve model of enlightened policy-makers objectively and rationally applying lessons from other countries. (HH comment: the issue of locality and context is dealt with above, as is the relevance of research done in one country being applied to another system.)
  4. The IELS, and similar testing regimes, seek to apply a universal framework to all countries, all pedagogies and all services. This approach rests on the principle that everything can be reduced to a common outcome, standard and measure. What it cannot do is accommodate, let alone welcome, diversity – of paradigm or theory, pedagogy or provision, childhood or culture. The issue raised – and not acknowledged, let alone addressed by the OECD in its documentation – is how an IELS can be applied to places and people who do not share its (implicit) positions, understandings, assumptions and values. (HH comment: the nub of the issue, this. There is no scope for localism even within a single country (compare urban Milton Keynes with rural Norfolk – do children in these two localities require the same education?). Diversity and locality are key factors in determining the nature of a child’s education, as the Cambridge Primary Review final report demonstrated back in 2008.)
  5. The OECD is an extremely powerful organisation, applying extremely powerful ‘human technologies’, including PISA and IELS. Yet the possible adverse effects of this power, such as the narrowing and standardisation of early childhood education, do not figure in the IELS documentation, not even in the section headed ‘risk management’. (HH Comment: I don’t know how we begin to address this. Governments need to look at a longer term view of human education for their populations, and not just bask in the glory of the hoops through which they are making their young people jump. Perhaps a catastrophic failure of OECD thinking – demonstrably false and laughable – might help, but I have no idea as to how to engineer one of those)

I am very grateful for Peter Moss blogging with this article. It doesn’t tackle the substantive issues around what must be done about the content, because it is not there yet. However, the call for tenders is full of a highly technical language and an emphasis on existing early years approaches that themselves are more technical than informed by child development understanding. The criticism of the Early Years baseline in England last year will overlap with a number of the eventual objections, I suspect. Peter Moss has done a great service to early years educators and I await the follow up with interest!


Gorur, R. (2014) Towards a Sociology of Measurement in Education Policy. European Educational Research Journal 13: 68-72

Morris, P. (2016) Education policy, cross-national tests of pupil achievement, and the pursuit of world-class schooling: A critical analysis (Institute of Education)

Moss, P., Dahlberg, G.,  Grieshaber, S., Mantovani S., May, H., Pence A., Rayna, S., Swadener, B.B., & Vandenbroeck, M. (2016) “The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Early Learning Study: Opening for debate and contestation” Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17: 343351). 


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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