Education & Family

England's schools succeed in problem-solving test

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

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.

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

  • 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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