UK declines in international 'league tables'

The latest PISA (Programme for International Assessment) report which examines the abilities of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science, shows that the performance of students in the UK has fallen against other OECD countries, from 23rd position in 2009 to 26th in 2012; in 2000, it was in 12th position.

The report ranks the UK 23rd for reading, 26th for maths and 20th for science. In 2009 it was placed 25th, 28th and 16th respectively. Shanghai tops the overall ranking with Singapore and Hong Kong being placed second and third place respectively.

The UK's mean score across reading, mathematics and science are roughly comparable to results for Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway and Portugal, which are all within the OECD's average score.

However, these are all outshone by the success of Asian nations including Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Macao-China, Singapore, Japan and Korea, which lead the results in reading and mathematics, as well as science.

PISA assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that it describes as 'essential for full participation in modern societies'. The assessment examines what students have learned and how well they can apply that learning to other settings.

As well as students' performance, the report considers other areas including the comparison of girls' and boys' performances, support for disadvantaged students and particularly, how equality of educational opportunity can improve or detract from students' learning outcomes. The report also considers how teachers' pay and working conditions can affect students' learning.

The report gives a revealing glance into students' happiness at school, too while Korea might be outperforming other nations academically, its students are the least happy and it falls to the bottom of the OECD countries listed. The UK comes in at 32, also well down the 'happiness scale', leaving Indonesia, Albania, Peru, Thailand and Colombia with the happiest students.

Around 510,000 students between the ages of 15 and 16 years completed the assessment in 2012, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds in the schools of the 65 participating countries and economies

You can read the report in full via the link, below.

The report details the following results:


Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Japan and Korea are the five highest-performing countries and economies in reading in PISA 2012. The UK came 23rd in reading, just ahead of the US.

Of the 64 countries and economies with comparable data throughout their participation in PISA, 32 improved their reading performance.

On average across OECD countries, 8% of students are top performers in reading (Level 5 or 6). These students can handle texts that are unfamiliar in either form or content and can conduct fine-grained analyses of texts. Shanghai-China has the largest proportion of top performers 25% among all participating countries and economies. More than 15% of students in Hong Kong-China, Japan and Singapore are top performers in reading.

Between the 2000 and 2012 PISA assessments, the gender gap in reading performance favouring girls widened in 11 countries.


Shanghai-China has the highest scores in mathematics, with a mean score of 613 points some 119 points, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling, above the OECD average.

Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands, in descending order of their scores, round out the top ten performers in mathematics. Here, the UK came 26th.

Of the 64 countries and economies with trend data between 2003 and 2012, 25 improved in mathematics performance.

The report also showed that boys perform better than girls in mathematics in 37 out of the 65 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, and girls outperform boys in five countries.


Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Japan and Finland are the top five performers in science in
PISA 2012. Here, the UK came 20th.


The PISA report focuses strongly on students' mathematical abilities. OECD countries invest over USD 230 billion each year in mathematics education in schools. While this is a major investment, the report states that 'the returns are many times larger'.

The OECD's new Survey of Adult Skills finds that foundation skills in mathematics have a major impact on individuals' life chances. The survey shows that poor mathematics skills severely limit people's access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs.

Beyond that, the survey shows that people with strong skills in mathematics are also 'more likely to volunteer, see themselves as actors in rather than as objects of political processes, and are even more likely to trust others'. Fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus also hinge on the skills of citizens.

The results show wide differences between countries in the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds. In mathematics, the equivalent of almost six years of schooling, or 245 score points on the PISA mathematics scale, separates the highest and lowest average performances of the countries that took part in the PISA 2012 mathematics assessment.

Gender divisions also emerge in the report with boys and girls show different levels of performance in mathematics, reading and science, but performance differences within the genders are significantly larger than those between them.

Marked gender differences in mathematics performance in favour of boys are observed in many countries and economies, but with a number of exceptions and to varying degrees. Among girls, the greatest hurdle is in reaching the top: girls are under-represented among the highest achievers in most countries and economies, which poses a serious challenge to achieving gender parity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations in the future.

By contrast, girls outperform boys in reading almost everywhere. This gender gap is particularly large in some high-performing countries, where almost all underperformance in reading is seen only among boys. Low-performing boys face a particularly large disadvantage as they are heavily over-represented among those who fail to show basic levels of reading literacy.

These low levels of performance tend to be coupled with low levels of engagement with school and as observed in PISA 2009 with low levels of engagement with and commitment to reading. To close the gender gap in reading performance, the report suggests that policy makers need to 'promote boys' engagement with reading' and ensure that more boys begin to show the basic level of proficiency that will allow them to 'participate fully and productively in life'.

Parents' expectations are also shown to have a significant impact on students' performances. Students whose parents have high expectations for them who expect them to earn a university degree and work in a professional or managerial capacity later on tend to have 'more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics, and more confidence in their own ability to solve mathematics problems' than students of similar socio-economic status and academic performance, but whose parents hold less ambitious expectations for them.

Across most countries and economies, socio-economically disadvantaged students not only score lower in mathematics, they also reported lower levels of engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs.

The report also makes the link between the quality of a school's teachers and principals and the quality of the students' learning. Countries that have improved their performance in PISA, like Brazil, Colombia, Estonia, Israel, Japan and Poland, for example, have established policies to improve the quality of their teaching staff by either adding to the requirements to earn a teaching license, providing incentives for high-achieving students to enter the profession, increasing salaries to make the profession more attractive and to retain more teachers, or by offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service teacher-training programmes.

While paying teachers well is only part of the equation, higher salaries can help school systems to attract the best candidates to the teaching profession.

School systems also need to ensure that teachers are allocated to schools and students where they can make the most difference. PISA results show that school systems with high student performance in mathematics tend to allocate resources more equitably between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

The OECD has launched a new project on this issue, the OECD Review of Policies to Improve the Effectiveness of Resource Use in Schools. More detailed information on how some high-performing countries allocate resources will be available as of 2015

05/12/2013UK declines in international 'league tables'
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