UK moves up in global education ranking

England raises its ranking by nine places in maths, with improvements in reading and science in the latest PISA global student assessment results.

PISA assesses the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science across 79 countries.
The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have seen the UK rise in international school rankings.Conducted every three years and involving half-a-million students around the world, PISA assesses the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science across 79 countries. As education in the UK is devolved, PISA publishes separate rankings for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. 

UK trends: 2009-2018

In England, PISA 2018 was conducted in October 2018 to January 2019, with a sample of 5,174 15-year-old pupils in 170 schools. In the latest rankings, which were released at the beginning of December 2019, teenagers in England trumped their peers in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, by moving up to 18th for maths – a significant improvement on 27th in 2015 and well above the OECD average. Pupils in England also outperformed the OECD average in reading and science, moving up to 14th from 22nd in 2015, and 14th from 15th in 2015 respectively.For the first time, the performance of pupils in Wales was similar to the OECD average in reading, maths and science. Wales has joined England in showing an improving trend across successive PISA cycles for maths, while Scotland has declined and Northern Ireland has remained generally stable.Since 2015, Scotland has significantly improved in reading, while England, Wales and Northern Ireland have remained stable. In science, there has been a decline in performance over successive cycles of PISA since 2006 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while England has remained stable.
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Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-genera, says, “Equipping citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their full potential, to contribute to an increasingly interconnected world, and to convert better skills into better lives needs to become a more central preoccupation of policymakers around the world. Fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus all hinge on the skills of citizens. In working to achieve these goals, more and more countries are looking beyond their own borders for evidence of the most successful and efficient education policies and practices. “PISA is not only the world’s most comprehensive and reliable indicator of students’ capabilities, it is also a powerful tool that countries and economies can use to fine-tune their education policies…That is why the OECD produces this triennial report on the state of education around the globe: to share evidence of the best policies and practices and to offer our timely and targeted support to help countries provide the best education possible for all of their students.” 

Further investigation needed on pupil wellbeing

While the results for students in England have significantly improved, the OECD research found that 53 per cent of 15-year-olds across the UK reported being less satisfied with their lives than in other developed countries.The results reflect the attitudes of students who participated in the study and warrants further investigation, warns the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER). Pupils were asked about their wellbeing; their satisfaction with their life; to what extent their life has meaning or purpose; positive and negative feelings; and their experiences of bullying. The responses found that 93 per cent of pupils felt happy “sometimes” or “always”, compared with 91 per cent on average in OECD countries. However, they were more likely to have negative feelings compared with pupils across the OECD. In particular, 66 per cent of pupils in England reported that they “sometimes” or “always” feel worried (50 per cent across the OECD) and 53 per cent of pupils in England reported “sometimes” or “always” feeling miserable (39 per cent across the OECD).NFER chief executive, Carole Willis says, “PISA provides a valuable and rigorous way for nations to benchmark their pupils’ performance and learn from policies and practices in other countries. Pupils in England have continued to perform well in reading and science and have made a significant improvement in maths. What requires further analysis and consideration is pupils’ perception of their wellbeing. While most pupils were happy, pupils in England were more likely to have negative feelings than pupils across the OECD countries, which raises questions which need further investigation.”
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Asia is top of the charts 

The highest performer in the PISA rankings was China, which achieved the top score for all subjects. Chinese students outperformed their peers in all of the other 78 participating education systems – in maths and science by a wide margin, and in reading, only Singapore came close. However, this does not represent China as a whole, as the rankings are calculated using results from just four of its provinces in eastern China – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. This is particularly poignant., as the size of each province compares to that of a typical OECD country and their combined populations amount to more than 180 million.The 10 per cent most disadvantaged students in these four provinces showed better reading skills than those of the average student in OECD countries and performed on a par with the 10 per cent most advantaged students in some of them.The PISA report adds, “What makes their achievement even more remarkable is that the level of income of these four Chinese regions is well below the OECD average. At the same time, they have a long way to go when it comes to improving the social and emotional outcomes, and other aspects of students’ well-being that were measured by PISA 2018, areas where other countries excel.”

European success stories

Global trends between 2009 and 2018 reveal that Asian school systems, such as China and Singapore, are consistently getting the best results, Estonia and Finland are among the highest achieving European countries and Canada is also performing strongly.While the UK managed to improve its rankings during the on-going turmoil of Brexit, schools in Europe have also had some impressive success stories. Estonia has advanced steadily to the top of the rankings, despite the fact that its expenditure per student remains about 30 per cent lower than the OECD average. In addition, Portugal advanced to the OECD average level even though the country was severely hit by the financial crisis.
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The report found that some countries were able to move to a more positive trajectory in recent years after a period of stagnation or decline. For example, Sweden showed an improving trend in all three subjects between 2012 and 2018, reversing earlier declines in mean performance. The Czech Republic and Ireland saw recent improvements in reading; Denmark, Ireland and Slovenia in maths; and Montenegro in science. “In some countries, some of these trends can be related to changes in the demographic composition of the student body; but in no country do such demographic changes alter the picture dramatically,” explains the report.

Education excellence in disadvantaged students and schools

PISA’s results show that in most countries, excellence in education is apparent among some of the most disadvantaged students and schools. On average across OECD countries, one in 10 disadvantaged students were able to score in the top quarter of reading performance in his or her country, indicating that disadvantage is not destiny. In fact, in Australia, Canada, Estonia, Ireland and the UK, all of which scored above the OECD average, more than 13 per cent of disadvantaged students were academically resilient. Similarly, more than 30 per cent of immigrant students in Brunei Darussalam, Jordan, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates scored in the top quarter of reading performance. The report says, “These successes do not come about by chance. Factors that PISA shows to be positively associated with academic resilience include support from parents, a positive school climate and having a growth mindset.”

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