The triennial survey of children’s achievement shows the United Kingdom at a stand-still in international rankings.
On Tuesday, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report was published. This report pulls together evidence on achievement for 15 year olds from across the world. Conducted every three years, PISA assesses pupils in four subjects (collaborative problem solving, mathematics, reading and science), with science being the focus subject in 2015. The data gathered is used to rank each participating country or region and show where their individual strengths and weaknesses lie. Over seventy countries took part in 2015, with England providing a sample of 5,194 pupils to take the computer-based assessment.
How did England perform?
Pupils in England performed significantly above the OECD average in science, marginally above the OECD average in reading and remained at the OECD average for mathematics. However, the average scores for pupils in England have not changed since 2006, showing a stagnation in performance. Whilst England has stood still, a number of other countries have improved or declined, meaning that our performance in relation to other countries has changed. For instance, as the OECD average has fallen, England’s performance in reading is now above the average, despite scores not having increased.
Achievement in Science
England is ranked above fifty-two countries in terms of science performance, showing science education to be a key strength. Achievement is roughly similar across the different strands of science, which mirrors the picture in the top-performing countries and there was no evidence of a gender gap. However, the gap between the highest and lowest attaining pupils is wider in England than in many OECD countries. On a positive note, 28% of English pupils were shown to be considering a career in science, a rise of 12 percentage points since 2006. As a result of this, School Standards Minister, Nick Gibb, announced a £12.1 million investment in supporting schools with the teaching of science. Mr Gibb said:
“We are determined to give all young people the world-class education they need to fulfil their potential. It is encouraging to see so many young people setting their ambitions high, as we know science is valued by employers and is linked to higher earnings…Studying science offers a wide range of options following school - whether that’s a career in medicine, engineering or teaching science in the classroom these are the vital skills needed for the future productivity and economic prosperity of this country. “
Achievement in Mathematics
Despite the average mathematics score in England remaining the same since 2006, a number of other countries have caught up, including Italy, Portugal and Russia. Once again, the top ranking countries in mathematics are all within East Asia. Although England has a similar proportion of high-achieving pupils to other OECD countries, our lowest-achieving pupils have mathematics skills significantly below those in other countries. The gap between the lowest and highest achievers in mathematics is equivalent to eight years of schooling, which is above the OECD average. As some would fear, the gender gap within mathematics is similar to most OECD countries, with boys far out-performing girls.
Achievement in Reading
As in mathematics and science, scores in England remained stable in reading. 41 countries have a mean reading score that is at least a third of a year behind England. However, as with mathematics, some countries, such as Russia and Spain, are quickly catching up. Our highest-achieving pupils compare favourably with other countries across the world and the gap between them and the lowest-achieving pupils is similar to the average. Nevertheless, girls continue to out-perform boys in reading, reflecting a broader trend across the OECD countries.
Achievement According to School
It is perhaps not surprising that pupils in schools rated ‘Outstanding’ perform better than their peers in schools rated ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’. However, the gap is larger than many may think, with the difference being approximately two years of schooling across science, reading and mathematics. In terms of differing types of schools, the best performing were independents, followed by convertor academies and then voluntary-aided and controlled schools. Pupil performance in sponsored academies is lowest. On the effect of selection, the report states:
“Yet when looking across countries, it is apparent that there is little association between the use of academic selection to assign pupils into different secondary schools and the proportion of disadvantaged pupils who manage to succeed academically against the odds.”
How does the rest of the UK compare?
The average scores of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland are broadly similar, with England significantly higher in science performance. However, achievement in Wales is significantly behind the rest of the UK. Scores in both England and Northern Ireland have remained stable since 2006, however there has been a 20 point decline in science achievement in Wales alongside a 15 point decline in mathematics performance in Scotland. It is now up to the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales to act to halt this decline.
Stability is a good thing, however if we want a place on the global stage, it is not good enough. We must learn from one another, analyse the detail behind the headline rankings and make informed decisions on education reform based on research and evidence.