This is an extraordinary story about the decline of British Education. But let me start on the subject of football. Because there are some interesting parallels.
Last week the various UK soccer sides all fell out of Euro 2008. Only 14 teams were able to qualify - and not one of our national sides made the cut. England promptly fired their national coach. Newspapers agonized over the decline and fall. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. This was, by all accounts, a national disaster.
This week the OECD published its Pisa survey. This is a comparative study of academic performance around the world. It publishes every three years and considers reading, maths and science skills. It too points to a national disaster.
The UK did VERY badly. Among 15-year-olds in 57 countries the UK ranked "between 12th and 18th place".
The organisers give a country's position as being ranked between certain positions because it says with a sample of students it is not always possible to state a comparative ranking with 100% accuracy. Instead, OECD calculates, with 95% confidence, a range of ranks that the country falls within.
So we can be 95% certain that UK school science is bad enough to see the national coach sacked.
Only that isn't quite how the BBC reported the story. Read on and be amazed:
UK among school science leaders
The UK is among the better performers in an international league table on school science
This is unbelievable reporting - not just rose-tinted spectacles but a full-blown case of myopia. Nor is this the first time that the BBC have reported an educational disaster as some curious form of triumph.
It obviously occurred to the BBC that people might - just might - check some of the facts. So the report continues with this extraordinary excuse:
In 2000, the UK was 4th, but the organisers say comparing results is not strictly valid because the tests have changed.
Note: not strictly valid. Hmm. I can't help thinking that a fall from 4th to 14th is sufficiently dramatic to be worthy of comparison despite some minor caveat.
The BBC then throws in this curious observation:
The UK as a whole was not included in the last Pisa study.
Well, yes, that's true - but a quick search of the BBC's own pages would reveal that in the last survey of 2003 the UK failed to provide enough data for the analysis of Maths and Science to be statistically valid (there's some deep irony in there somewhere).
So the last time the UK was properly assessed was back in 2000. And everything has been in decline ever since. The BBC reported that millennium survey in euphoric terms - and even managed to employ a footballing metaphor. Sadly the report is now most notable for the unfulfilled optimism of its closing paragraph.
Of course, it isn't only Science and Soccer that are in decline. Only last week it was announced that England had dropped from third place to 19th in the world in an assessment of reading.
The Pisa survey is based on tests carried out in 2006 in 57 countries which together account for 90% of the world's economy. It tested students on how much they knew about science and their ability to use scientific knowledge to address questions in daily life.
Finland come out on top, followed by Hong Kong (China), Canada, Chinese Taipei, Estonia and Japan. Countries that have moved 'sharply upward' include Canada, Germany, Austria and Denmark.
Note that Estonia were part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Next thing you know, we'll be losing football games to Croatia...
The BBC have now changed their article to better reflect the reality of the original Pisa Report.
It now reads:
UK schools slip down in science
The UK is above average in a major international league table on school science - but it has slipped compared to its previous top-four ranking.
The whole article remains depressingly apologetic in tone - but it is at least a fairer reflection of the facts.