Schools in Britain are among the worst in the world for ‘teaching to the test’ because of high levels of social inequality, a study claims.

British teachers drill their pupils to pass tests because of the demand for certain grades to get well-paid jobs.

Britain and the US are the worst culprits as they ‘try to maximise exam results’ amid ‘enormous’ wage differentials in the labour market, the Oxford University study found.

Researchers examined the 25 wealthiest countries in the developed world and compared the maths, literacy and problem-solving scores of 15-year-olds with those of 16 to 24-year-olds.

They looked at the correlation between a country’s economic inequality and its scores in international tests using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the Survey of Adult Skills, which are both administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In Britain, which has high levels of income inequality, 15-year-olds performed close to average for maths, literacy and problem-solving. But performance dropped significantly among 16 to 24-year-olds.

This suggested that learning ahead of exams had been superficial, the study found.

The countries that did best also had good Pisa results, including Finland, South Korea and Japan. But overall, the findings revealed that the greater the gap between rich and poor, the higher the chance of young people forgetting what they had learned.

Lead researcher Danny Dorling, a geography professor at Oxford University, told the Times Educational Supplement that in more competitive societies exam results mattered ‘far more’ so there was more pressure to achieve certain grades.

The findings suggest that UK schools focus on short-term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests and this knowledge is quickly forgotten, he added.

Professor Dorling said: ‘In more competitive societies, such as the US and UK, exam results matter far more. So the pressure from parents and from schools to get children a C grade rather than a D, or an A* rather than an A is very large.

‘In both these countries people try to maximise exam results because young people are entering a labour market where they are going to be paid enormous differences between the minimum wage and the top end.’

Professor Dorling said: ‘If we had a situation like Japan, where the most disadvantaged people are paid twice as much (as the UK) and you can actually live off a job as a cleaner, parents wouldn’t be so worried about exam results.

‘Parents here are, probably rightly, paranoid about exam results because they mean so much.’ Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said students in England were among the most tested in the world. She said: ‘We should be focusing on lifelong learning. Instead, we forget what we are taught and we have low take-up of education and training after compulsory schooling, which massively affects our productivity as a country.’

A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘This government has reduced the number of tests children take – for example, by scrapping modules and January assessments as part of our reforms to GCSEs and A-levels – and is making sure they are only tested when they are truly ready.’

Article published in the Daily Mail, 18 December 2015

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