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 543.

    It seems all downhill with Michael Gove, the Murdoch lackey at the Department of Education.

    He should perhaps be sent back to school, Finland or Shanghai.

    He was pretty good at parliamentary expence claims, I can't remember the items he acquired and the amount he was required to pay back.

    His priorities need to change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    No surprise here then!. There are very few weeks pass that the government does not "Tinker" with education (and other things as well - Health Service). Goverment by trial and error is not the way forward, we need a government that has Ministers that know what they are talking about, where we can find such people.?

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    My wife is a teacher in Scotland. The education department has told teachers that their main activity is to look after the welfare of the children and teaching is of secondary importance. Is it any wonder that children are achieving less. Perhaps politicians should leave teaching to the people qualified to teach. Give them the funding and let them achieve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    Our children should be taught at exactly the same level and in the same way as the Chinese to compare, no play, few holidays, regimented 12 hour school days with quarterly exams with punishment for failing, the results published in their parents' place of work for all to see, only going home to sleep and parents have just one child to focus on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    Years of meddling with the school curriculum by both major parties has led to this, and with the abolition of the Grammar schools-compounded it all. Education, education, education rings very hollow now, with the morons that are broken state system products. Even the big super markets have to educate school leavers if only in communications skills. Shame on Nut to be a part of this too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Did anyone watch the programme ""Educating" Yorkshire"?

    The problem was graphically illustrated: a tiny minority of disruptive children with no interest in school or academic studies taking up 90% of teachers time and preventing any attempt at academic excellence for those who want to learn.

    Academically minded children should be taught separately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    Instead of pondering league tables of unknown validity, we must concentrate on getting the environment right for children. They will never succeed if their parents do not entirely accept the importance of and need for education. It must be a unified alliance between teachers, parents, government and so on. At the moment, we have groups marginalized by political dogma in a get-rich-quick society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    Nice table if you want education to produce robots. When was the last time you read about entrepreneurs, innovators or great artists from those countries that rank high in this table. Also, where do those clever people from those countries go when they graduate? Usually to the west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    Finland may be disappointed but they far exceed European standards in most subjects and they have a system that produces well-rounded, educated people. Far from cramming desperately, they start school later and have little testing; teachers are given a lot of control.

    Lets emulate Finland, not China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Which muppet put Gove where he is?

    For goodness sake, we need to stop politicians fiddling with things they don't understand - education and health for starters. At least the Bank of England limits the amount of meddling they can do to the economy.

    We need autonomous bodies (the equivalent to the BofE) in charge of education and health.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.


    431. Will
    The real world is survival of the fittest,
    How is fitness tested, size of wage packet, number of degrees, knowing the right people, etc etc?
    To be clear survival of the fittest means the survival of the most adaptable so knowing the right people is a form of being adaptable as is being educated and being flexible in your career choices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    Lets be honest, look out there. Many parents are poorly educated, can barely string sentences together and offer little stability. Many are skilled only in celebrity style tattoos, song lyrics and i-phones than being able to cook a nutritious meal or sit and read a proper book - just stick the tele on. Many in our schools now have English as a second language. It's all in the resulting statistics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    The comprehensive system has failed. Sorry sandal wearers but it is true. Grammars and Secondary Moderns enable social mobility. I went to a SM but we were streamed. The brighter late developers had the same chance as the GS kids in the end. many like me were able to be lifted from a manual working class family into a profession. Add discipline and things will change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    If I had kids I think I would prefer them to have fun growing up and not have all this pressure of tests. Their not children very long so let them enjoy it!!!

    The world may grow a rich economy but will be so much poorer for creativity

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    I'm surprised not to see more comments about class sizes. As a parent governor I've witnessed consistently exceptional teaching at our local primary, but even amazing teachers can't be expected to give sufficient personal attention to each child's differences when faced with 30. Only through greater investment in schools and teachers can this bit of the problem be tackled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    It makes you question, the way that our "resent government's" has interfered with the school systems our country, i suspect that "an increase" in the length of school hours/term time will be the model! Then we can "populate" spreadsheet's, and come up with the "right" figures to make the list, rather than teaching, which is expensive, time consuming! there ain't no magic bullets, you have to teach

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    Many posters have hit the nail on the head. The main problem is a lack of respect and value placed on education in general.
    There are structural and organisational issues including militant unions and tinkering governments but lack of respect is the big factor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    Feedback from teachers in the UK I hear, many students lack creative abilities, due to the style of the education system, there's a deficit here, yet the focus still likes primarily on knowledge, such as literacy or maths. Finland is one of the leaders in a system that balances both areas which benefits a knowledge based economy. Asia is also experiencing this imbalance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    We have a prescriptive education system where everyone must conform. Teachers have their hands tied as to what they teach, when, and how. Children are forced to learn at the speed of the slowest, and are often taught to the exam rather than being taught to think. Quite often the syllabus is political propaganda motivated.

    The result, as it turns out, was entirely predictable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    True, but there's nothing stopping graduates in numerate and scientific disciplines entering politics.
    I wish more would get involved so that policy was more evidence-based.


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