Standards achieved by the UK’s 15-year-olds have flatlined over the past three years, the latest results from the world’s most influential comparative education study suggest.
According to the 2012 edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) published today, the country remains at the average for industrialised countries in reading and maths.
It stays above average in science, but the UK’s test score in the subject remains exactly the same as it was for the last Pisa in 2009.
The results come despite a level of education spending on 6-15 year-olds that, at £59,887 per pupil, is higher than the average for the industrialised world of £50,942. The UK also has higher than average levels of tertiary education and a lower than average share of the “most socio-economically deprived groups”, the study notes.
“However, these comparative advantages do not have a clear relationship with educational outcomes [in the UK],” it says.
Performances from the four individual home nations have also remained largely static, as have their relative positions within the UK.
In England, the results have already sparked a political row over who is to blame for the lack of significant improvement since 2006.
Michael Gove, education secretary, said that they underlined the “urgent need” for the Coalition’s government’s education reforms. “Only by learning from other nations and confronting failure at home will we give young people a fighting chance of competing for the jobs of the future,” he said.
His Labour shadow, Tristram Hunt, argued that the Pisa results were “another wake-up call for British schools policy” and represented a “powerful critique of Michael Gove’s schools policy”.
“All his frenetic attention-seeking changes of the past three years — structural reforms, curriculum rewrites, multiplying assessment criteria — have not delivered,” he said.
But Andreas Schleicher, deputy education director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs Pisa, was clear that the current government’s policies could not be judged until 2015. The latest results were “three years [too] early”, he said.
They place the UK at 26th in a table of 65 territories for maths — the main focus of the latest Pisa — up two places, with a very slightly improved score.
The country fell from 16th to 21st in science and nudged up from 25th to 23rd in reading. None of the changes in the ranking were big enough to be statistically significant. But they confirm the UK’s position below a rapidly-consolidating East Asian elite and some of Europe’s top performers.
The failure to improve was highlighted by the rise of the Republic of Ireland, which extended its lead over the UK in reading – climbing to seventh place – and leapfrogged its near neighbour in the other two subjects.
But the UK finished above a host of advanced countries, including Sweden, the US and Italy.
Immigrant pupils in the UK perform as well in maths as other pupils, unlike “many other OECD countries” where immigrant scores are significantly lower, the study found.
Proportions of high and low performers in maths in the UK are similar to the OECD average. Its pupils struggle most with areas of maths closely linked to geometry and algebra.
Of the four constituent UK countries, Scotland and England came first and second respectively in maths and reading, with the positions reversed in science. Wales again come bottom by a long way in the UK in all subjects, with all of its scores lower than in 2009.
Read the rest of the TES' Pisa coverage at our dedicated Pisa 2012 page.