New research by the OECD suggests that countries offering comprehensive education create better conditions for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to build resilience.  The working paper ‘Academic Resilience: What schools and countries do to help disadvantaged students succeed in PISA‘  acknowledged that some of the factors that help students to be resilient are personal, while others will be a reflection on their home environment, but the report looked at the contributions that education systems and individual schools can make to help disadvantaged students succeed.

The study found that comprehensive education systems show better results at building resilience than selective systems.  An analysis of the OECD’s massive PISA dataset revealed that the chances of disadvantaged students being academically resilient varied between different school systems. Out of the 51 education systems for which the share of resilient students can be compared between PISA 2006 and 2015, there were 19 which increased the likelihood of resilience among disadvantaged students and 9 where this likelihood decreased. Among OECD countries where the increase was particularly pronounced were Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. In 2006 only around one in four disadvantaged students in Germany reached Level 3 performance or higher in all three academic subjects tested in PISA. By 2015 as many as one in three did. One of the reasons why Germany was able to increase  its share of resilient students, the OECD believes, is the movement towards less selection in middle schools in many of its Länder.

Francesco Avvisati,  the co-author of the OECD study said, “When looking overall across PISA-participating countries, I would say that there is evidence to support the hypothesis that academic resilience of disadvantaged students is greater in non-selective comprehensive systems. Contrast Hong Kong and Singapore: both are top performers in PISA, with Singapore performing slightly above Hong Kong in all subjects; yet Hong Kong has a higher share of disadvantaged students who succeed in PISA (resilient students), and it also happens to have a less selective school system (students are tracked for the first time at age 15; in Singapore, they are tracked at age 12). Similarly, Denmark and Norway have similar results in PISA overall to those observed in Belgium and Switzerland, but have higher shares of resilient students: and the former has a non-selective, comprehensive system up to age 16, while Belgium and Switzerland track students at age 12.”

He continued, “We also believe that one of the reasons why Germany was able to increase greatly its share of resilient students is the movement towards fewer tracks (from 3 to 2 tracks) in middle schools, along with other measures to promote greater equity.”

The study found that the later the between-school selection takes place the greater the chance of resilience in disadvantaged students. This is yet more evidence that the government’s recent plan to expand selection at eleven was a bad plan. School systems around the world are increasingly moving away from early selection of pupils into different types of school, and we should build on the success of our comprehensive school system.

Thanks to Comprehensive Future patron Demitri Coryton, of Education Journal, for sharing details of the OECD report, a full review of the report is available here.