Pisa tests: UK stagnates as Shanghai tops league table

Maths scores

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The UK is falling behind global rivals in international tests taken by 15-year-olds, failing to make the top 20 in maths, reading and science.

England's Education Secretary Michael Gove said since the 1990s, test performances had been "at best stagnant, at worst declining".

Shanghai in China is the top education system in the OECD's Pisa tests.

Within the UK, Scotland outperformed England at maths and reading, but Wales is below average in all subjects.

Mr Gove told MPs that his reforms, such as changing the curriculum, school autonomy and directing financial support towards poorer pupils, were designed to prevent schools in England from "falling further behind".

He highlighted the rapid improvements that had been made in countries such as Poland, Germany and Vietnam.

Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt called on Mr Gove to take some responsibility for the lack of progress and said the results showed that collaboration between schools and teachers was more effective than market forces.

'Extremely sobering'

Graham Stuart, chair of the education select committee, said the results were "extremely sobering" and showed that "we went nowhere" despite massive investment in schools.

But the Pisa results should not be used to "talk down our public education system", said Chris Keates, leader of the NASUWT teachers' union, who argued that high performing countries were those which promoted the professionalism of teachers.

Classroom in South Korea The gap between top and bottom of the league table equals six years of learning

In response to the particularly poor results in Wales, Education Minister Huw Lewis said: "Everybody working in and around the Welsh education sector needs to take a long hard look in the mirror."

Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser for education company Pearson and former Downing Street adviser, said the test result "focuses minds in education ministries around the world like nothing else".

What are the Pisa tests?

  • International tests in maths, reading and science
  • Tests are taken by 500,000 15 year old pupils in 65 countries and local administrations
  • They are run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • In the UK, more than 12,000 pupils took the tests in 2012

The Pisa tests - the Programme for International Student Assessment - have become the most influential rankings in international education, based on tests taken by more than 500,000 secondary school pupils.

These measure education standards in Europe, North and South America, Australasia and parts of the Middle East and Asia.

Tunisia was the only African country that participated.

The top places in the rankings are dominated by Asian school systems - although China so far does not participate as a whole country, but is represented by high-performing cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.

In the next set of Pisa tests it is expected that a wider range of provinces in China will be entered.

Shanghai's maths score is the equivalent of three years' schooling above the OECD average.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, November 2013 Changing places: Vietnam has overtaken the US and UK in education rankings

Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan are among the highest ranked across all subjects.

The OECD's Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the Pisa tests, has highlighted Vietnam's "star performance".

The South East Asian country has entered the top 10 for science and outperformed many much wealthier western education systems, including the United States.

UK slips in science

The UK has made little progress and remains among the average, middle-ranking countries, in 26th place for maths and 23rd for reading, broadly similar to three years ago.


  • 1. Shanghai 570
  • 2. Hong Kong 545
  • 3. Singapore 542
  • 4. Japan 538
  • 5. South Korea 536
  • 6. Finland 524
  • 7. Ireland 523
  • 8. Taiwan 523
  • 9. Canada 523
  • 10. Poland 518

Source: OECD

But the UK has slipped in science from 16th to 21st place.

Although not directly comparable, because there have been different numbers of countries taking part, this marks a sustained decline, with the UK having ranked 4th in the tests taken in 2000.

Much of this falling behind has been caused by other countries improving more quickly.

The OECD figures show that there has been almost no change in the UK's test scores, with the results "flat lining".

Within the UK, Scotland has performed slightly better than England in maths and reading, with England higher for science. Northern Ireland is behind them both across all subjects.

But the biggest gap is between Wales and the other parts of the UK, adrift from most of the middle ranking western countries.

Happiest pupils

The lowest ranked countries in this international league table are Peru and Indonesia. The OECD says the gap between top and bottom of this global classroom is the equivalent of six years of learning.


  • 1. Shanghai 613
  • 2. Singapore 573
  • 3. Hong Kong 561
  • 4. Taiwan 560
  • 5. South Korea 554
  • 6. Macau-China 538
  • 7. Japan 536
  • 8. Liechtenstein 535
  • 9. Switzerland 531
  • 10. Netherlands 523

Source: OECD

However Indonesia also appears as the country where the highest proportion of children say they are happiest at school. And the least happy pupils are in high-performing South Korea.

Finland, once an education superpower at the top of the rankings, has slipped downwards. Along with Sweden, Finland had the biggest fall in scores of any country in maths tests.

Sweden has fallen behind eastern and central European countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia.

But Finland still has the highest position of any European country, fifth in science, the only non-Asian country in any of the top fives.

Among the strongest performances by English-speaking countries are Ireland, ranked 7th in reading, and Canada ranked 10th in science.

Chile is the strongest performer among South American countries, above the lowest-performing European country, Albania.

How regions compare

These Pisa tests provide an increasing level of regional detail and they show the huge variation within a single country.

In Italy, the region of Trento is one of the best in the world at maths, but Calabria is far below many European countries, the equivalent of two years behind.


  • 1. Shanghai 580
  • 2. Hong Kong 555
  • 3. Singapore 551
  • 4. Japan 547
  • 5. Finland 545
  • 6. Estonia 541
  • 7. South Korea 538
  • 8. Vietnam 528
  • 9. Poland 526
  • 10. Canada 525

Source: OECD

The US remains average or below average, below countries such as Russia and Spain, but individual states are high performers.

If Massachusetts was ranked as a country it would be sixth best in the world, ahead of any European country.

From a low base in previous years, one of the biggest improvers in maths and reading is Qatar, a country that has been a high-profile investor in education.

Katja Hall, the chief policy director of the CBI employers' organisation, said: "No issue matters more to the UK economy over the long term than the quality of our education system."

But she warned the results should be a "wake-up call" and that when UK schools are only "treading water" that the country's economic performance will suffer.

"High-performing schools are the best way to support economic growth and greater opportunity."

The OECD's secretary general, Angel Gurria, launching the results in Washington in the US, said: "It's more urgent than ever that young people learn the skills they need to succeed.

"In a global economy, competitiveness and future job prospects will depend on what people can do with what they know. Young people are the future, so every country must do everything it can to improve its education system and the prospects of future generations."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I don't understand Labour triumphed with more As and A*s year on year. Idiots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Well of course we won't have made any progress - the unions are too busy politicising schoolkids to be footsoldiersbin the war against Gove for their nembers to do any teaching

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I don't want our schools to output at the same level as Asian schools.
    Have you seen the pressure Asian children are put under and seen the student suicide rates in high performing Asian countries? Blow that. We need to improve but I would not consider going to the lengths they do an improvement!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    As someone living and teaching in Asia I can say that teaching students how to pass tests comes at a price. They usually have to attend cram schools at night, getting no time for play as Francis Gerard mentioned and end up with little sense of creativity and abitlity to innovate, something which is not tested but is surely key in the future economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The standards of teaching in this country are pretty bad. I attended a phonics workshop with my daughters class teacher. She said "This is how to spell out the word CA (cat, she dropped the t at the end), C-A-T, CA!". I was cringing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    What a suprise, Gove blames the last Government for his idiotic policies and conveniently gives himself 10 years before he can be made accountable. He fails to acknowledge that UK students were actually progressing before his current narrow minded dogma was implemented.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Finnish education in action....


    In the last PISA rankings, Finland were in the top six of all disciplines - Maths, Sciences and Reading.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Just now
    Time to take education out of the hands of the Government.

    The time to do that was 30 years ago, its too late now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    What a pisa.
    Companies such as the beeb tend to employ graduates as the mainstay of their workforce
    They are very well run.
    True or false?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    So instead looking across the North Sea to our Neighbours Finland where Children attend Non Selective State Schools, start formal education at 8 ,don't take a plethora of external exams, have longer school holidays and teachers are respected by politicians .

    Gove would rather look at Korea where kids of 8 work 12 Hours a day and which has the highest youth suicide rate in the World

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    If teachers were allowed to make school a more enjoyable experience for children where good, solid foundations are still laid, then increased learning will take place. The over-zealous and pressured treadmill that every teacher engages with everyday continues to produces only "middling" results. Let the professionals get on with it - they also want literate numerate children!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    What do you expect? The standards are purposely low so it looks like everyone is achieving something. Bright kids are held back so other kids don't look so bad. This is what Labour wanted. Anyone who wants their kids to get a good education has to send them to private school, where kids of all abilities are given attention. That's just how it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    In Japan, after the age of 12 everyone pays for a child's education. It is not free. Added to their cultural emphasis on education, there is considerable pressure on pupils, teachers and schools to get results - and they do. With our money fixation, this arrangement could work well here. Before you ask - no one would dream of suffering the disgrace by asking for social assistance to pay the fees

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Turn off the TV, take away the phones, bring back real and politically backed disciplinary measures and drop the PC fluff. Eduction is not about liberal social engineering and micro managed 'differentiation'. Concentrate on education and education alone. Exactly like the Asian nations do. Sure, some will be left behind, but you can't train all donkeys to be race horses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Maybe you could factor in the Country's general mood of Austerity, Doom & Gloom as well.

    They may be expert in Maths & English but do they understand Animal Welfare, Relationships, Debating without violence and Financial Planning.

    All of these essential subjects are lacking

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Time to extend teaching time to a realistic 9 to 5 as in industry, 5 weeks holiday a year as in industry, save money on childcare, pay teachers more for not having longer holidays than everyone else. More time to learn more and less irrelevant subjects crammed in instead of real life learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Usual BBC bias in this story. If we had a Labour government I have no doubt they would be reporting it as " standards have stabilised".
    The fact is though, that reading, writing and arithmetic education in this country is simply not good enough, and has not been good enough for many, many years.
    Lack of achievement need to be met with "must do better" rather than "that's OK".

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    "The real test of our reforms will be how we do in a decade's time," said Mr Gove,

    That might be a bit late Mr Gove but I suppose you will have moved on by then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    On Michael Gove's watch! though I suspect he will not accept that his constant meddling with the education of our children is in anyway responsible for the poor standards! or for that matter the low morale of our professional educators,

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Just now
    Many countries teach to the PISA tests
    Agree absolutely and what is worse there are many people in this country who think we should too. Funnily enough many of the same people are on hand to denounce school league tables every year.


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