The latest international study of schools gives a strong indication of what the UK is doing right - and wrong. Warwick Mansell and Helen Ward report.Organisers of the latest international comparison of schools urged the UK not to judge its performance against previous years. But that was never going to happen.
The fall of Britain's 15-year-olds down the reading, maths and science rankings was dramatic, as The TES predicted last week.
Shortly after the scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) were published this week, the press reported that standards had "plummeted", "tumbled" and "nose-dived", despite billions spent on education. The Daily Star summed it up in three words: "Dunce Brits' slump".
The contrast between the latest results and those for 2000 was stark. The UK fell from 4th to 14th for science, 7th to 17th for reading and 8th to 24th in maths.
Writing in today's TES, Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said that, on the face of it, the results were "dreadful".
"It seems that not only are our football and cricket teams rubbish, but our children are the dunces of the developed world and getting worse."
But the reality, as he and others have pointed out, is more subtle.
Approximately 400,000 15-year-olds in 57 countries took the tests, which are conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development every three years. The OECD stressed that comparisons with previous years were not possible for the UK because of differences in sample sizes. In 2003, the response was so small, the UK's results were not included.
Leaving past performance aside, the UK's teens performed well in science by international standards, and averagely in maths and reading.
Jim Knight, schools minister, tried to put a positive spin on the results, saying they showed the UK had performed well comparatively, with a high proportion getting the top level in science.
But few outside Government or the school system were going to be so charitable - particularly as this was the first time the tests had been taken by pupils who have spent almost all their schooling under Labour. And it did not help that ministers had set themselves up for a fall by boasting in 2001 that the UK's pupils were "world beaters".
Responding to the 2006 results, Dr Robert Coe, director of the curriculum evaluation and management centre at Durham University, said: "There has not been a dramatic improvement. Some people may say that with the amount of funding in education, staying the same is not good enough."
This Confederation of British Industry echoed this view, saying that the figures made for "disturbing reading". "At a time of increasing global competition, the UK cannot afford to be 'average'," it said.
The Conservatives leapt on the figures, which came less than a week after England dropped from 3rd to 19th in an international study of 10-year-olds' reading skills.
Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families, blamed the "education establishment". "Every year, the Government boasts about the improvements it has made, but every external audit tells us we're falling further behind," he said.
"Ed Balls' failure to press ahead with reform and tackle the complacent education establishment is condemning future generations to further failure."
But subject associations for science and English blamed the high-stakes testing culture.
There was some positive news for the UK. Boys performed surprisingly well, beating girls in science and maths, while the performance lead that girls had over boys at reading was not so great as elsewhere.
First-generation immigrants also did relatively well in the UK, lagging behind those born in this country, but not so far as overseas.
UK schools were among the best-equipped in terms of computers, with one for every four children.
Scottish pupils narrowly outperformed their English counterparts in reading, but did so more clearly in maths. In science, however, the English were fractionally ahead.
Wales lagged behind in all three tests, as did Northern Ireland - surprising given the latter's better performance at GCSE and A-level.
Some observers have urged scepticism about the OECD figures, which use pupil and headteacher questionnaires to enrich their findings.
Education International, a federation of teachers' unions, said: "The complexities of education cannot be reduced to sports scores."
John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said there was one major element missing from the OECD's surveys: any sense of teachers' views on schools and education.
Pisa sends questionnaires to heads, pupils and, in some countries - though not the UK - parents. Their survey of teachers' opinions is to be published next year, but the UK is one of several large countries not taking part.
Mr Bangs said: "It is extraordinary that the voice of the very people who are responsible for delivering improvements to education is not being heard."
In science, British pupils are generally above average, with particular strengths in biology. UK pupils have consistently performed better at the subject than in English and maths in international studies.
Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said:"The key thing is that in terms of science scores, we are well above average. It is not a bad performance".
British pupils appear to spend a relatively large amount of time on the subject, 62 per cent reporting they spend four hours or more on it a week compared with an OECD average of 29 per cent.
More UK students than the OECD average believed doing well in science was important to their future careers. But slightly fewer expressed a desire to go into science.
General enjoyment and interest in the subject was about average, but UK students were the least likely of any country to read about science in newspapers or magazines.
Although heads said that their schools were largely well-equipped for science, they also reported more teacher vacancies than comparable countries.
In reading, one word sums up the UK's performance: average. The overall score was 495, just below the OECD mean measure of 500.
At the top end of the ability profile, 30 per cent of UK pupils reached level four or five of the five-point scale, compared with 29 per cent across OECD countries. Some 19 per cent scored the lowest level - one - compared with 20 per cent internationally.
Our results overall put the UK in line with Germany and France, ahead of Italy, Spain and Norway but below others including Korea, Finland, Ireland and New Zealand.
Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "These results reflect the examination sausage factory that education has become."
In maths, the UK's results were in line with those of France and Germany and above those of Italy, Spain, Norway and the US, but below many others.
Our score of 495 was just below the OECD average of 500.
This country had slightly fewer very low performers than the average, but also fewer high achievers, just 11 per cent reaching levels five or six, compared with an OECD average figure of 13 per cent.
Tony Gardiner, a past president of the Mathematical Association, said: "The whole strategy for the past 10 years has been a disaster for the top end (higher-ability children). Our able kids have been completely sold short."
SAMPLE QUESTIONS FROM THE LATEST TESTS
Science - Acid Rain
Below is a photo of statues called Caryatids that were built on the Acropolis in Athens more than 2,500 years ago. The statues are made of a type of rock called marble. Marble is composed of calcium carbonate.
In 1980, the original statues were transferred inside the museum of the Acropolis and replaced by replicas. The original statues were eaten away by acid rain. Normal rain is slightly acidic because it has absorbed some carbon dioxide from the air. Acid rain is more acidic than normal rain because it has absorbed gases such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides as well.
Where do these sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides in the air come from?
(Pupils scored marks if they mentioned car exhausts, factory emissions, the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, the burning of material containing sulphur and nitrogen, gases from volcanoes or other similar things).
Maths - Global Warming
A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.
Each lichen grows in the approximate shape of a circle.
The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:
d = 7.0 (greater than or equal to) (t (greater than or equal to) 12) for t (greater than or equal to) 12
where 'd' represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and 't' represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.
Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen 16 years after the ice disappeared.