Worse than Warsaw: England takes global rankings nosedive

10th December 2010 at 00:00
The latest Pisa survey saw the nation's performance drop in key subjects. The table includes more countries this year but the results are still grim, says Richard Vaughan

One look at the nation's press this week will have told teachers, heads and governing bodies that despite their efforts, England's education system is officially worse than those of Estonia, Liechtenstein and Poland.

Wednesday's headlines bemoaned the UK "plummeting", "slipping" and "slumping" down international education rankings, which once again named Korea and Finland as the top-performing countries in the world.

The findings are taken from the latest Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, which is based on the results of two-hour tests sat by nearly 500,000 15-year-olds.

The UK's performance fell on the last survey in 2007, dropping from 17th to 25th in reading, 24th to 28th in maths, and 14th to 16th in science. But the drop had as much to do with an increase in the number of countries participating in the survey as it did with poor overall performance by England's students.

A number of countries, including high-performing Korea and Finland, saw their test scores fall, with Korea's overall reading score dropping by 17 points. Overall, the UK fell just one point.

As Pisa head Andreas Schleicher put it, the UK had "stagnated at best" in terms of its test scores, while many other countries have seen "significant" improvement.

Indeed, the figures do not make for comfortable reading, with John Bangs, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, describing the results as "depressing".

And although the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers the tests, described England's scores as meeting international averages, secretary general Angel Gurria gave a stark reminder of the importance of high educational performance.

"Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth," Mr Gurria said. "While national income and educational achievement are still related, Pisa shows that two countries with similar prosperity can produce very different results."

The findings led education secretary Michael Gove to accuse the previous government of failing to achieve value for money, and to admit that he was "daunted by the scale of the challenge".

"After 13 years of increased investment in education, when it was a political priority for the last government, we still fall behind other nations," Mr Gove said. "So we have got to ensure we implement those lessons, and not every lesson here is necessarily comfortable for some people who are heavily invested in the old ways of doing things."

The education secretary said Pisa's findings in terms of what constituted a high-performing school system were a "ringing endorsement" of the Coalition's plans to overhaul the country's education system.

As well as Korea and Finland, the list of top performers contained Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, while Shanghai in China performed best of all, although it is not able to top the official rankings because it is not a country.

According to Mr Gove, each of these places share common factors in achieving high test scores: greater autonomy for schools; "sharper" accountability; raising the prestige of the profession and having greater control over discipline.

The results led to calls for improvement from the business sector, with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) demanding the Government does more to ensure the UK as a whole remains competitive with other countries.

Susan Anderson, the CBI's director of public services and skills, said: "Only seven OECD countries spend more per student than the UK, so the Government needs to make much more of its investment.

"We want to see more students studying maths beyond the age of 16 and more taking three separate sciences at GCSE, so that young people do not miss out on opportunities later in life."

Despite the results, shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said schools had improved under Labour and that they were "heading in the right direction".

"English schools are better today than they were in the 1980s and '90s, but of course we all want them to be among the best in the world," he said. "Labour's legacy was the 'best generation ever' of teachers, according to Ofsted."

Education union the ATL acknowledged there was room for improvement with the UK's scores in reading and maths, but added that the Government needed to focus on the divide between rich and poor if it was to make a significant impact.

"Politicians should pay heed to the significant impact worldwide of social class on achievement," said Martin Johnson, ATL's deputy general secretary. "If we are to improve our education further, we have to reduce the inequality between classes, which is among the largest in the wealthiest nations."

But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned of the dangers of reading too much into international comparison tables.

"We must not forget that the Pisa assessments have well-documented limitations. It is not easy to compare countries with contrasting cultures. Many of the outcomes of the survey relate to societal as much as educational issues and the methodology of the tests. Hasty conclusions and wholesale denigration of our education service will not help to address weaknesses in our provision."



Richard Vaughan

Britain may have slipped further down international league tables in reading, maths and science but when it comes to bullying in schools, the UK has the lowest incidence in the world.

The report showed the UK came out on top for the percentage of pupils who had not reported to their head any incidence of "intimidation or bullying of other students".

Overall, 97 per cent of pupils said that bullying or intimidation by other students did not hinder their studies, while just 71 per cent said the same in Finland.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that in behaviour and bullying, the UK had a lot to be pleased about. "Over a series of measures ... we were significantly better than the norms."



Helen Ward

UK pupils who attended pre-school have higher reading scores at age 15, according to the survey.

The Pisa study looked at whether pre-primary education had an effect on children's reading results at 15. In general, students who went to pre-school did better than those who did not, even when socio-economic background was taken into account, but the impact varied between countries.

In Belgium, France, Israel and Italy, students who had been to pre-school for more than a year performed at least 64 points higher in the test than those who had not - the equivalent of one and a half school years.

In the UK, the advantage was 57 points once background was considered, suggesting that the quality of UK pre-school education is relatively high.


Reading: 17th25th

Maths: 24th28th

Science: 14th16th.

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