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England's pupils above average at problem solving, international survey reveals

Pupils in England are “significantly better” at problem solving than the average for the industrialised world, the latest results from an influential comparative education study show.

The country finished 11th among the 44 different international territories where 15-year-olds took new computer-based tests, as part of the last round of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment).

England’s pupils also did significantly better at the tests - designed to see how prepared they are for everyday problems like buying train tickets - than their counterparts in other countries who had performed at similar levels in Pisa’s maths, science and reading tests.

Michael Davidson, head of schools at the OECD, which runs Pisa, said: “England is producing skills for students that match what the growing demand in the labour market is. It is a good news story.

“The fact that they are particularly strong given their mathematics performance is saying something… that they are being given opportunities to develop those problem solving skills. I think they must be learning those skills in school.”

England’s problem solving score placed it above competitors including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and USA.

It was a rare piece of good news from Pisa for a country that was revealed to have flat-lined in all three academic subjects, when results for those tests were published in December.

But England was on the verge of not taking part in problem-solving at all. TES revealed in October 2011 that the government had decided to opt out because it did not “want to overburden schools”. 

It emerged last summer that ministers had had a change of heart although no reason was given.  

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the results as “yet another reason to be proud of our education system”.  

But they offer room for improvement with one in six of pupils in England  - 16.4 per cent - at best “only able to solve very simple problems that do not require thinking ahead and are cast in familiar settings”. In Japan and South Korea only 7 per cent fell into that category.

East Asia dominated top of the table - just as it had in maths, science and reading - taking up all of the first seven places.

Singapore finished top followed by South Korea; Japan; Macao, Hong Kong; Shanghai, China; and Taiwan. Canada, Australia and Finland were the only other countries finishing above England.

The tests took place in 2012 at the same time as the academic Pisa assessments, but the results are only being released today.

Michael Gove, education secretary, has used England’s “plummet” down the Pisa world rankings in the three academic subjects as justification for radical school reforms.

Asked about those reforms, Mr Davidson warned that: “It will obviously be important not to squeeze out the opportunities to develop the problem solving skills which evidently are there now amongst the 15 year-olds in England.” 

He also speculated that schools in England might have taught the skills through “cross curricular activities”, an approach that Mr Gove’s reforms have moved away from.

The results showed that in most countries boys perform problem solving better than girls. But in England the difference was not statistically significant.

Pupils with an immigrant background did score significantly worse than others in England even after socio-economic background was accounted for.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “These results show our young people are strong in problem-solving – this is a skill we should build on.

“But they also confirm that generally those who perform best in maths, reading and science – Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and South Korea – are also those who do best in problem-solving.

“This connection between the core subjects and problem-solving underlines why we are focusing on the basics in the rigorous new primary curriculum, and why reformed GCSEs and A levels will have open-ended questions which encourage lateral thinking.”

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