UK slips down the international league tables

While other countries have improved their numeracy and literacy standards, the UK’s have stalled; our 15 year-olds are now years behind their international peers.

500,000 15 year-old pupils took the two-hour tests in maths, reading and science in 65 countries and regions, with  the latest PISA report placing Shanghai at the top and Peru at the bottom of the ratings, The Independent reports.

The UK’s performance is stagnating  despite all the investment and  interventions in education; in 2012 we came 26th in maths, 23rd in reading and 20th in science, not dissimilar to the 2009 rankings of 27th, 26th and 20th respectively. Wales has fallen behind the rest of the UK, dropping from 20th in science to joint 36th, falling three places in maths and now ranking 41 in reading, down from 38 three years ago.

Critics are questioning the methodology of the tests and there are warnings about reading too much into the results, with fears that education will become too narrowly focused on the three subjects assessed.

The results triggered a battle of war between Michael Gove and his Labour counterpart Tristram Hunt. Mr. Gove claimed that the stagnation was the last government’s fault and nothing to do with his policies, while Mr. Hunt accused the Coalition of “failing to confront the international challenge we face”.

The latest PISA has raised concerns about whether education spending has been targeted effectively. The UK spends the equivalent of just over $98,000 per head on six to 15-year-olds, compared with an international average of just under $83,400; South Korea, one of the highest performing countries in maths, spent well below this.

What’s your take on the latest PISA results? How can the UK – and Wales in particular – do better in the international league tables?

13 thoughts on “UK slips down the international league tables

  1. I qualified in 1980 after three years of the traditional training.This included psychology and the theory of education as well as training in each curriculum area.
    I have chosen to teach in Private Schools. State school teachers spend so much time doing paper work that they lack the energy and motivation for their main role, teaching! Teachers in the private sector focus on motivating children to learn.
    Countries who are achieving are those that focus on creativity.

  2. These tests are flawed in so many ways it’s unreal – if you are going to report this please do it properly.

  3. PISA appears to say one thing but another international survey across 63 nations (as far as I know the same nations as PISA) that is published 3-yearly, TIMSS covering Maths and Science indicates the following:

    Maths

    http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_M_Chapter2.pdf
    Page 90: Northern Ireland 6th, England 7th both ahead of Finland and other European nations
    Page 92: Evidences improvement for England from 1995 to 2011 placing England 6th ahead of US, Russia and other European nations

    http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_M_Chapter3.pdf
    Page 154: In terms of trends across the Maths content England also comes out relative well in 6th place but interestingly the Asiatic Rim nations are not dominant with Australia, Austria, Czech Republic and Denmark replacing all but Chinese Taipei

    Science

    http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_S_Chapter2.pdf
    Page 82: England is 10th
    Page 87: England is 8th
    Page 114: England is 6th
    Page 116: In terms of trends across 1995 to 2011 England has shown overall stability is 6th

    http://timss.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_S_Chapter3.pdf
    Page 144: In terms of trends across the Life, Physical and Earth Science content England is 15th
    Page 146: In terms of trends across Biology and Chemistry content England is 9th
    Page147: In terms of trends across Physics and Earth Science content England is 9th

    I could carry on quoting data but that would be tedious.

    The message is clear all surveys have their own foci and foibles. For example they only reflect the results of those that sit them, which albeit seeming to be a profoundly obvious statement belies the fact that no cognisance is, or can be, given for cultural difference e.g. the attitude of parental/family and society at large to the worth of or value placed on education. Nor is there any acknowledgement of the attitudes of some nations to entering their immigrant pupils who are often excluded from the test (e.g. predominantly Asiatic Rim nations) or those for whom the impact immigration is large or smaller than others (e.g. the Scandinavian nations tend to have fewer immigrants than other European nations such as UK, France, Holland, Germany).

    I urge people not to trust to UK politicians or the UK media to provide a balanced, accurate or impartial representation of the data – they all have their own agendas from point scoring through supporting party ideologies to sensationalist headlines.

  4. I haven’t heard of this test before despite sending the last 14 years teaching, I also don’t know of any schools who do this test. So I am forced to believe this is taken from a very small sample.of children. In my opinion it is simply another way for politicians to call each other names and pass the blame onto each other and the obviously poor standards of teaching the children of today now receive.

  5. Could our poor performance, or should I say failure to equip our children with basic skills, be due to mixed ability teaching? Classes in the UK consist of children whose home language is not English, SEN, and greatly varying abilities. Teaching these classes is like juggling with eggs. Where as ability streamed classes allows a more focused approach, catering for a limited set of individual specific needs, allowing the teacher more pupil time. It may be a step backwards, but how were the results back then?

  6. Well, my understanding is that our 15 year olds are 6 months behind Japanese pupils in these tests; yet they (Japanese) have 13 hour academic days to ‘achieve’ this. Is it worth losing a childhood over this? Also, the children in countries like Finland don’t start schooling until 7 years of age, but they’ve caught up academically with ours within a year or so. Also, these tests are paper-based. Science is quintessentially a practical subject. How do those countries said to be above us in League Tables fare in terms of practical skills?

  7. Also, I understand that our position in these league tables hasn’t taken account of new countries having been incorporated into them.

  8. The comment by Rebecca is typical of what I hear in staff rooms and seems to sum up how the UK comes across as incapable of accepting when things don’t work. The fact is that constant tinkering will never resolve the serious education issues here. Politicians as well as educationalists need to stop making changes before they can examine the impact of previous policies. Change must be based upon research, and trialled extensively before even being considered for implementation. This is not how the UK has approached Education in the last two generations. That is why it is in this state.

    PISA 2012 involved pupils in 65 countries around the world. Schools in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are oversampled so that results can be reported for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland and so comparisons can be made within the UK. In England, a total of 170 schools and 4185 pupils took part in PISA 2012 and almost 490 schools took part in the survey across the UK.

    Not quite a “very small sample”.

    Have a look at the various reports for the UK here http://www.nfer.ac.uk/pisa/PISA-2012-in-the-UK.cfm

  9. I don’t find any of this surprising. I can see what Rebecca is saying, and she may well have a valid point, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is much wider and deeper than this government or the last.

    A few short decades ago, primary schools were advocating to parents of pre-school children NOT to teach them to read, because it would confuse them when they started attending school and found themselves being taught through different methods. This led to large numbers of parents “leaving it to the professionals”. Unfortunately, the professionals didn’t make such a grand job of it either, because they took the approach of devising a methodology which reflected an adult understanding of how to learn something new – an analytical approach. However, developmental psychologists tell us that children’s analytical abilities don’t start to mature until the age of seven or eight years old. Before that, they learn in a more holistic way – just as they pick up lingual comprehension and expression through language. The key to this approach is that they listen, they try things out, evaluate their attempts by comparing what they say with what they hear, and modify future attempts until their speech aligns with that of the adults with whom they have the most contact.

    Now, we could say that their initial attempts at producing their own speech are overloaded with mistakes, but the majority of parents accept the inevitable, that in the earliest stages of learning to speak it is to be expected that young children won’t get everything right, but also that to a great degree they’ll self-correct. Those parents who don’t understand this create major problems for themselves, for their children and for family relationships. Place teachers in this scenario two or three years further on in children’s development, and we can see how well-meaning attempts at continuous correction can seriously undermine a child’s confidence, to the extent that vast numbers of young people are refusing to learn the things which society tells them they should be learning.

    Our task now is to hand back to children the responsibility for their own learning, but encourage them through enjoyable, bonding experiences. The first amongst these must surely be reading age-appropriate stories TO children on a frequent, at least once daily, basis, and get out of the way when children want to learn to read for themselves, giving hell if and when it’s asked for, and only then. This is going to need parents themselves to be given support in reading to their own children because, according to a small survey which I carried out for my own interest, an alarming number of them were traumatised by their own experiences of being “taught” to read when they were at school.

    The impact that a programme promoting this would have, not just on educational achievement but on our entire society, shouldn’t be underestimated. The family bonding which one-to-one attention engenders will enhance children’s sense of security and self-esteem. This will then have a major impact on young children’s readiness for learning when they start school. Public investment should be directed to supporting and building up parent’s confidence in reading to their children, reducing the need for dramatic programmes of intervention on a large scale within the education system. When early learning takes place in a loving home, later learning in school follows as a matter of course.

    I haven’t addressed the issue of numeracy, but this has been created by similar misunderstandings. One of the most grotesque manifestations of these is the recent requirement that five-year-olds be taught fractions. This demand demonstrates a complete lack of appreciation of the true nature of the problem, and is itself an example of a learning difficulty, or handicap. Our politicians are the product, to a great extent, of the era I described earlier: one in which artificially constructed “learning opportunities” were thrust at them. The new era, or New Age, demands that we focus our attention on those whom we’re serving: the children. When we adopt an attitude of service rather than one of demand, the results we’re looking for will magically appear, and will be unstoppable.

  10. In my view there are many reasons why we are falling behind in the PISA league – it’s not easy to pinpoint one particular reason. I agree that standards in literacy and numeracy should be the main focus in schools, but not to the detriment of other subjects that enrich a child’s learning. However, all too often when I go into schools (I am a peripatetic EAL teacher), I see children who do not know the basics, who don’t know the proper names for parts of speech (nouns are “people, places or things”, adjectives are “describing words” and I won’t even mention adverbs and definers…), who are being taught to “move the decimal place”.

    As a teacher I value the work each and every one of my colleagues does – I know how much dedication and hard work goes into teaching every individual child who passes through our classes. However, I feel that there is a fundamental flaw in our education system that is partly to do with lack of experience from an increasingly young teacher workforce, but mainly due to poor management of schools. For example, due to budgetary constraints, more and more schools are either employing NQTs (or even those who haven’t yet qualified..!) or HLTAs to teach. I know of a case where experienced teachers were overlooked in favour of the student placed at the school who was nearing the end of her training. The student got the job – and resigned less than 6 weeks later because she couldn’t cope! How sad for all involved – the student, the school, the other applicants (all of whom had the necessary experience), and the children.

    What we actually need are experienced teachers who know what is required to raise standards. We are not a highly paid profession, so employing someone at the top of MPS should not break the bank, but increasingly I see these teachers overlooked in favour of “cheap” NQTs. There is a real retention problem out there. Experienced teachers are leaving the profession because of pay, pensions and conditions of service, or are not able to secure a teaching post because they are “too expensive”. This government, schools and Local Authorities can’t have the penny and the bun – they need to take a long hard look at themselves and reconsider their priorities if they are to drive forward standards.

  11. I have worked in several south East Asian countries and have notice that children from as young as three are privately tutored after school. Quite a lot of these children are working a twelve to fourteen hour day. Some of these children regard school hours as a rest, often falling asleep during school hours, in the class!

  12. Hello from New Zealand,

    I’m a Physics teacher for the last 7 years in the UK. I have moved to New Zealand for one year and experienced the New Zealand Physics Curriculum. I was shocked to see what year 13 students here achieve at the end of their year 13. Their numeracy skills is impressive; they can rearrange equations, they can deal with experimental errors. Their literacy skills is also more developped than in the UK.
    The teacher does not use all the gizmos that I was asked to use in the UK: very few teachers have leson objectives written on the board, three parts lessons, activity cards, differentiation…. The accent is set on the students being responsible for their learning. I have even seen in the year 12 classroom some students who were learning particle Physics without teacher help beacuse they wanted to sit the exam so as to get extra credit to go to university. If the student achieve enough credit in year 12 he/she can go to university without the year 13!!! Some of the exam questions are about thinking outside the curriculum, critical thinking skills being highly developped in the classroom.
    Creativity is very important from an early age (I have a child in year 7, in an intermediate school here). The homework that she gets is about 2 skills: i) Independent learning skills: being able from an early age to do independent research; ii) Creativity to present the learning in the most interesting way.

    I’m extremely lucky to have this experience and I look forward to going back home to the UK to teach Physics again, but in a different way
    Have our students switched off?
    Caroline

  13. I find many of the above comments intelligent reflections on the testing and the education system. In particular I think Peter Brodie’s comments are very much to the point. As an experienced and recently retired teacher I am very disheartened by the constant use of politics to manipulate the education system. The children of this country deserve better than this. The teachers also deserve to develop their skills through experience of teaching and reflection on how different students learn without constant undermining. We need an independent education board that is well informed and can make decisions to truly enrich educational experience and attainment.
    From my experience in Spain and reading Spanish there was some disappointment about ranking there. However there were also comments about high standards of attainment at university. Our European education systems do work well for many but not for all. Those who take responsibility for their own learning or who have parents who pay for tuition or private schools with small classes are winners. We are still not fully able to address the issues surrounding students who do not have such an advantage. This will always keep our figures down and quite rightly.

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