England's schools succeed in problem-solving test

Problem solving Problem-solving tests examined how pupils could apply their knowledge

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England's teenagers are "significantly above average" in problem-solving skills, according to the results of international tests.

After many disappointments in international school tests, these latest global rankings from the OECD put England in 11th place.

The OECD puts England as second highest in Europe, behind Finland, in tests of how pupils can apply their knowledge.

Singapore and South Korea were top in tests taken by 15-year-olds.

These problem-solving tests were taken at the same time as the Pisa tests, which compare how well pupils perform in maths, reading and science.

Job market

Rather than testing theoretical knowledge, the problem-solving tests examined how well teenagers could use their knowledge in practical questions.

For example, it presented pupils with a range of information about different types of train tickets and asked them to work out the cheapest price for a journey.

Start Quote

Good problem solving skills give young people an edge in the world of work”

End Quote Brian Lightman ASCL general secretary

These problem-solving tests were an optional extra following the Pisa tests taken in 2012 - and were taken by 44 out of the 65 countries and administrations in the Pisa rankings.

About 85,000 pupils took these tests, as a sample representing 19 million 15-year-olds. In England, the sample was based on 137 schools.

It found that pupils in England were much better than their performance in Pisa tests, where they failed to make the top 20 in any subject.

The OECD's Michael Davidson suggested that Asian countries were particularly strong at learning information, but it seemed that pupils in England were above average at how this information was creatively applied.

The top performers remained Asian countries and education systems - but the Chinese city of Shanghai, which had been the top performer in Pisa tests, is ranked sixth in these more practical tests.

China does not compete as a whole country, but some of its cities and regions participate separately.

England's pupils' performance puts them above countries such as Germany, the United States and Sweden.

These problem-solving skills were going to be essential for the future job chances of young people, said the OECD's Francesco Avvisati.

Core knowledge

Across the countries and cities taking part, boys were more likely to be among the top performers. But in England, there was no significant gender difference.

Singapore skyline Singapore had the highest results in problem solving

There were also big regional differences. Northern Italy had some of the best results in the world, while schools in southern Italy were far below average.

Colombia, Bulgaria and Uruguay had the lowest results.

Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman described the results as "excellent news".

"Graduates need core knowledge in subjects like maths and English, but they also need to be able to apply this to tackle complex and unpredictable tasks with confidence," said Mr Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"Good problem-solving skills give young people an edge in the world of work and prepare them to move into top jobs and leadership positions."

A Department for Education spokesman said the test results showed the strength in problem solving.

"But they also confirm that generally those who perform best in maths, reading and science - Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and South Korea - are also those who do best in problem solving.

"This connection between the core subjects and problem solving underlines why we are focusing on the basics in the rigorous new primary curriculum, and why reformed GCSEs and A-levels will have open-ended questions which encourage lateral thinking."

Problem solving test top 20

Source: OECD

1. Singapore

2. South Korea

3. Japan

4. Macau (China)

5. Hong Kong (China)

6. Shanghai (China)

7. Taiwan

8. Canada

9. Australia

10. Finland

11. England

12. Estonia

13. France

14. Netherlands

15. Italy

16. Czech Republic

17. Germany

18. United States

19. Belgium

20. Austria


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  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    As an adult trainer I noted that our Brit engineers were far more adaptable than most other nationalities, including the Asian engineers. I suspect our showing in this test is damped by poor basics, such as literacy and numeracy.

    We need balance in our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    It is good and not surprising to hear this good news. Current political leadership and the education secretary are undermining teachers and good schools. Many of us (parents) know that our children are very lucky to have dedicated and good teachers and that children are taught to think rather than succumb to rote learning. Perhaps a thinking population is a threat to politicians?

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    The talent is there, but there is little incentive for these talented youngsters to pursue it.

    I left a good university in 2005 with an Engineering degree, and struggled to find a job in Engineering (unless I was willing to go abroad.) I ended up in the city.

    My Dad is an Engineer, he had to go to the UAE to further his career.

    We need more well paying Engineering jobs in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    I am a strong advocate of problem solving skills, but they must not be at the detriment of fundamental and basic knowledge. The UK's education system has been told to focus on active learning. The result is that we improve problem based skills, but basic knowledge is still lacking in many students. The only way to gain both, as in China, is to increase workloads and improve attitudes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Why then has this government dropped technology from core GCSE subjects? we are the ONLY country to do this..why because this country thinks engineers operate bits of software on computers
    Real engineers make things, paper engineers just plan and produce nice coloured charts to other chinless wonders
    We have 1000's of them, mores the pity.


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