Last Thursday the Department for Education (DfE) issued a press release headed ‘England joins new study to improve children’s early development’. England, it announced, is to participate in a new cross-national assessment of five-year-olds, the ‘International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study’ (IELS), organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with participating countries organising the collection of data to a common format.
Modelled on OECD’s well-known international assessment of 15-year-olds, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the IELS will assess four learning ‘domains’ (emerging literacy, emerging numeracy, self-regulation, and empathy and trust) using tablets, each domain taking approximately 15 minutes. Additional information will be gathered from parents and staff through written and online questionnaires.
Following a short period of design and development, including a field trial, a ‘main study’, across three to six countries, will be undertaken, followed by ‘quality control and analysis’ and a ‘report’ in 2019-2020. This may be just the start of a regular and larger-scale undertaking, the DfE telling us that ‘if successful, the OECD is expected to repeat the study in future years and invite other countries to take part.’
All this may come as a surprise to you. If so, you’re not alone. Most of the early childhood community in OECD’s 35 member states know nothing about IELS, despite IELS first being broached by a network of Government representatives in 2012 and its now advanced stage of development. Secrecy and lack of consultation has surrounded it from the start, and this continues. The DfE has participated in planning IELS for some time now, yet never sought to consult with the early childhood community in England; a ‘National Advisory Committee’ is now to be set up, too late, of course, to consult or advice on the major decision of whether or not to participate.
Neither, with one exception, do we know who else will participate. The exception is the USA, mentioned in DfE’s press release, but enquiries about which other countries have signed up, if any, meets a brick wall: DfE refers enquiries to OECD, OECD insists it is for individual countries to say. To date, I have been reliably informed that a number of countries (including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden) have declined to take part, but have heard of no others who have agreed to participate. We don’t know, therefore, if OECD will get the three to six countries it hopes to recruit for its initial round, or whether it will include just England and the US.
The secrecy surrounding this ‘pre-school PISA’, and the lack of enthusiasm for it among many countries, are not the only issues. Since news of the IELS began to spread from late summer 2016, serious concerns have been raised about it from individuals and organisations from many countries: the way a highly political project is presented as a purely technical exercise; the ignoring of diversity of context, culture and purpose; the possibility of the study (with its standardised scores and inevitable league tables) leading to more uniformity and narrowing of early childhood education; and a naïve belief in policy learning – to name but a few. But neither the OECD nor the DfE has so much as acknowledged such concerns, let alone responded to them. Both seem deaf to any voices except those in agreement.
I have been critical of the IELS since I first heard of it, through the grapevine, last year. But I am not opposed to comparative studies of early childhood education and care – far from it, I believe they are urgently needed. Indeed, my main objection to the IELS is that it is a wasted opportunity. Rather than this ‘pre-school PISA’, we need an approach that is respectful of diversity, welcoming of complexity, inclusive of the field’s multiple perspectives, and provoking of thought. The saddest part of this sad episode is that OECD has already undertaken an exemplary study, between 1996-2006, Starting Strong 1 and 2, a landmark comparison of ECEC in 20 countries, using case-study methods that were sensitive to the diversity and complexity of systems and pedagogies.
Rather than build on this work, OECD has turned to a mass testing approach, with standardised measures of standardised outcomes, an example of what the great Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi termed ‘Anglo-Saxon testology’. I’ll leave the last word to him: ‘[testology] is nothing but a ridiculous simplification of knowledge, and a robbing of meaning from individual histories.’