Pupils in the South East are as good as the Japanese in science and reading – but a new analysis of Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) data shows large variations across the country.
Pupils in the West Midlands are the equivalent of one year behind the South East in maths, when average test scores are compared, the report released today by the Department for Education reveals.
And it highlights the north-south divide – with 15-year-olds in the South East outperforming those in other regions of England in science, reading and maths.
In science – England’s strongest subject in Pisa – the average pupils in the South East perform on a par with the average pupil in Japan and Estonia.
But the average performance of pupils in the North West and North East is more similar to Northern Ireland, Scotland, Norway and the USA.
Pisa international rankings
In the Pisa international rankings, published last year, the UK ranked 15th in science: Japan ranked 2nd and Norway ranked 24th.
Because the number of pupils taking the Pisa tests in each region is relatively small, researchers John Jerrim and Nikki Shure, from the UCL Institute of Education, say that it is not possible to identify many significant differences across regions.
But the differences between the very top and bottom performing regions are significant, they say.
In reading, whereas the UK ranked 22nd internationally, the analysis shows that pupils in the South East were once more on a par with Japan, which ranked 8th – whereas those in the West Midlands were on a par with the average performance in Luxembourg, which ranked 36th.
“All south and east regions of England and London performed above the England and OECD average reading Pisa scores. However, the North East, Yorkshire and Humber, North West and West Midlands all performed below the OECD average,” the report states.
In maths, the UK came 27th internationally, but pupils in the South East performed significantly better than those in the West Midlands, North East, Yorkshire and Humber and North West.
The average maths score of pupils in the South East puts them on a par with pupils in Estonia (9th place).
But the average score across the West Midlands was similar to Lithuania (36th place).
The report also looks at the gap between high and low achievers.
“There is a gap of over eight years of schooling in maths, science and reading between the top and bottom 10 per cent of pupils in England. This is a larger gap than in most of the top-performing countries,” the report states.
The international Pisa tests are run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development every three years and test pupils in reading, maths and science. The average score is 500 points – 30 points is equivalent to a year’s worth of schooling.
In England, the gap between the top and bottom achievers in the science tests is 264 points, whereas in Hong Kong it is 209.
Pisa divides its scores into six proficiency levels: pupils below level 2 are "low achievers" and those with a score of level 5 or 6 are "high achievers".
The researchers found that low achievers are nearly twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals than those who are not.
Slightly more high achievers are boys than girls, and high achievers are more than twice as likely than others to be at an independent school.