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What can the UK learn from the latest global data on pupil performance?

New data from the OECD reveal how teenagers around the world are doing at school. The results for the UK are above average – and there hasn’t been the same big drop in scores as in some other places. But there remain significant social concerns, with over one in ten children going hungry.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA) measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their knowledge and skills in mathematics, reading and science to meet real-life challenges.

Since its first iteration in 2000, PISA has arguably become the world’s most policy-influential dataset. It is taken very seriously by governments, initiating changes in policies and practices.

More and more countries and economies have taken part since its inception (from 32 countries in 2000 to 81 countries in 2022). In December 2023, the most recent PISA data were published, allowing a comparison of how pupils in countries across the world are faring.

What can we learn from the PISA data?

PISA releases are like a mash-up of Christmas and a World Cup. They are like Christmas because they provide a feast of data, results and ideas that will delight those of us in the evidence-based community. And they are like a World Cup because they happen every few years and culminate in a ‘league table’ of countries.

While it is the league table position of individual countries that attracts the most casual interest, this is not immediately translatable into policy ideas. The UK’s Department for Education cannot simply call all head teachers and say ’act Estonian’ (noting the top European performer in maths).

There is certainly scope for such policy lessons, but that will come from thorough and careful analysis of all the data in PISA. Here’s an example of previous work.

A different example, relating more to practice than policy, has been the incorporation of ‘Singapore maths mastery’ teaching into schools in England. The original impetus for this came from the fact that Singapore was always at or near the top of the PISA maths rankings.

Indeed, a programme specific to the UK – that focused on fewer topics studied in more depth and which placed greater emphasis on problem-solving and encouraging mathematical thinking – has been evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation and found to be effective.

While it may be too soon for the use of this programme to have affected the UK’s latest PISA scores in maths, this process shows the indirect effect of global PISA rankings on UK teaching practice.

What do the most recent data tell us?

The UK’s position remains strong, with significantly above average scores in all three subjects. And while UK scores fell, they fell less than the OECD average. What’s more, the UK trends were (unusually) upwards in reading and stable in maths.

Figure 1: Trends in UK performance in mathematics, reading and science

Source: OECD

This may sound a bit underwhelming, but it is an excellent performance relative to some obvious comparator countries. Germany, for example, recorded its lowest ever scores, including only OECD-average maths scores and a low score for fairness of the education system.

France experienced a record drop in performance, and also has a highly inequitable education system. Results from the United States show particularly poor scores in maths, trailing many other countries, while in the Netherlands, immigrant pupils’ score were particularly low.

In fact, the UK has the best combination of average performance and fairness metric in maths of any European country (see Figures 1 and 2). The UK is highlighted as being in the top ten most equitable education systems, ‘combining high levels of inclusion and fairness’.

Figure 2: Strength of socio-economic gradient and mathematics performance

Source: OECD

Figure 3: Differences in mathematical performance, by immigrant background

Source: OECD

It is very likely that the enduring lessons from the 2022 PISA results will come from deeper analysis of the data, rather than the league table positions themselves. Having said that, the league table positions do provide useful information for policy.

As noted, the persistently strong performance of Singapore and other East Asian economies has contributed to the introduction of new ways of teaching maths in England. Equally, the long-term fall of Finland from being among the leaders in the early days of PISA to being back in the average pack now is a cautionary story.

A number of issues have been picked out by PISA’s director, Andreas Schleicher, for further study. The first of these is the clear long-term downward trend in global PISA scores. While school closures during the pandemic had strong effects (see below), these trends started well before 2020.

As this pattern covers many (although not all) countries, it cannot be explained by policies adopted in individual countries. Nor can these results be dismissed as just one (idiosyncratic) choice of pupil performance, as we know that this measure is associated with (in fact, causally affects) economic growth: PISA skills matter. Understanding the basis of this decline is an important task for education researchers.

The second issue is that layered on top of the downward trend is a particularly marked fall in scores between this PISA assessment (2022) and the previous one in 2018. Average maths performance in OECD countries fell by around 15 points, which is three times greater than any previous change.

In addition, some countries saw significantly greater falls (for example, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland). The obvious cause here is the school closures and patchy online provision induced by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the report shows that the international picture is complex, and the relationship between the drop in scores and school closure times does not explain everything. It seems that pupil motivation during the pandemic is highlighted more than issues with technology.

Third, the report highlights the performance of migrant pupils, an outcome of broad significance for a country that affects equity and social cohesion as well as average scores. Here, the UK stands out among European countries as a place where migrant pupils perform better than non-migrant pupils in maths and reading.

Other countries doing well on this measure include Australia, New Zealand and the United States; countries at the opposite end of the scale include Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Sweden.

There are, of course, a number of factors at play here: principally, how the host education system works with migrants, and the backgrounds from which the migrants come. Untangling these issues is complicated. Nevertheless, providing a learning environment in which migrant pupils can thrive is an outcome of which the UK education system can be proud. (In 2014, I made a similar point specifically about London.)

Finally, this release of PISA takes a broader look at life for young people across countries, highlighting aspects of physical and mental wellbeing. Physical wellbeing is measured here by an elemental factor: do you have enough to eat?

Here, the UK’s performance is shocking: significantly more pupils (11%) go hungry than in the OECD as a whole (8%). Other poor performers on this measure include the United States (13%), New Zealand (14%) and Türkiye (19%), while good performers include Finland and the Netherlands (below 3%).

Mental wellbeing of course has many facets, and one of particular relevance for adolescents is friendship or the lack of it – loneliness – which is measured in the PISA report. On average, across the OECD, 16% of pupils reported feeling lonely, with a range of below 10% in the Netherlands and Portugal to over 25% in Türkiye. The UK was right on the average at 16%.

Summarising the results for the UK school system, we can conclude that average performance and equity were strong. Within measures of equity, the performance of migrant pupils was notably good.

But the wider social welfare framework for young people in the UK was much less positive, with substantially higher than average numbers of children going hungry. This is not an outlier finding, fitting well with the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report, which shows that the UK had the largest increase in child poverty between 2012-14 and 2019-21.

UK schools do well in educating their pupils – but society more broadly is failing them.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Simon Burgess
  • Ludger Woessmann
  • John Jerrim
  • Hans Sievertsen
Author: Simon Burgess
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