International rankings deliver mixed messages

England slips slightly in Timss but reading improves in Pirls

Helen Ward & William Stewart

England's schools received good news in the latest set of high-profile international rankings, published this week, with a significant improvement in reading ability at the end of primary school. But while literacy improved compared with the last set of tests, there was a small dip in maths and a bigger drop in science. Here, TES analyses the results.

Timss: maths and science

Far Eastern countries are forming a premier league in maths, with their pupils' abilities far outstripping the performance of children in other countries, according to the Trends in International Maths and Science Study (Timss).

In maths, England's overall performance has slipped slightly after a dramatic rise in the last round of tests. This time, England's 10-year-olds were ranked ninth in the world out of 50, compared with seventh out of 36 in 2007. England's 14-year-olds came 10th out of 42 this year, compared with seventh out of 45 in 2007.

But despite a relatively strong showing, the number of pupils achieving the highest advanced level is a long way behind the best performing nations. In England, just 18 per cent of primary children reach advanced level, compared with 43 per cent of 10-year-olds in Singapore. In secondary schools the gap is even more pronounced: nearly half of pupils in Chinese Taipei, Singapore and the Republic of Korea are working at an advanced level by the age of 14, compared with just 8 per cent in England.

"Clearly the East Asian countries, particularly Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Korea, are pulling away from the rest of the world by a considerable margin," the report states.

Because Timss is conducted on a four-year cycle, the cohort of pupils assessed in 2007 were the same group assessed this year in Year 9. The statistics show that England is in a group of six countries whose pupils were above average four years ago in primary school but are now near average.

Overall, the report suggests there is little correlation between the amount of time spent teaching maths and pupils' performance. But East Asian countries, apart from Singapore, do less formal maths teaching than England at primary level, although at secondary level that is reversed and the rankings gap between the countries widens.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said: "It is good that we are above many of the countries that supposedly have better systems but the gap with Asian countries needs closing. England is one of the most improved jurisdictions for the younger age group. There are some reasons for encouragement and, dare I say it, even praise for primary school teachers."

In primary science, England came 15th out of 50 compared with seventh out of 36 in 2007. In secondary science, performance was also down, from fifth out of 45 in 2007 to ninth out of 42 this time. The change is likely to underline fears that the focus on science in primary school has been lost since the Sats science test was dropped in 2010, while English and maths remained as key measures.

Pirls: reading

England's dramatic rise up the global primary reading rankings has been hampered by problems with bullying, as well as lack of sleep and basic nutrition among pupils, the results reveal.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) shows that England is now 11th out of 45 countries, compared with 19th in the last edition of the survey from 2006. But it also reveals that 55 per cent of 10-year-old pupils in England are bullied at least once a month, which is worse than the international average.

England fared even worse when it came to tired pupils. Teachers reported that the learning of 63 per cent of 10-year-olds was limited by a lack of sleep, making it the eighth worst out of 45 countries. The learning of 23 per cent of pupils was inhibited by a "lack of basic nutrition", teachers in England said.

Analysis from Boston College in the US, which produces Pirls, shows that all three problems negatively affected pupils' scores in the reading tests.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said: "The pupil tiredness and cyber-bullying may both be connected to the rise of the internet and computer gaming.

"We may not be coping very well as a society with some of the social pressures that this technology can bring. This does show that what schools do cannot be separated from the lives that children live outside school."

Other problems that primaries in England had to contend with included just 26 per cent of pupils positively liking reading, below the international average of 28 per cent, although fewer children reported that they "never or almost never" read for fun. England also had the sixth lowest proportion of pupils who were motivated to read, at 65 per cent.

England's recovery from the last set of results was impressive, but the country's performance did not match the third place out of 35 achieved in 2001 and it was still trailing in the wake of Northern Ireland.

See pages 24-28

England's results

Timss science, age 10


Top: South Korea

Timss science, age 14


Top: Singapore

Timss maths, age 10


Top: Singapore

Timss maths, age 14


Top: South Korea

Pirls reading, age 10


Top: Hong Kong

Source: Department for Education.

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Helen Ward & William Stewart

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