British pupils’ gains in maths and reading declined following the pandemic, a major international study has suggested.
Teenagers in the UK are lagging behind their peers from high-performing countries such as Singapore, Japan and Estonia, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which is based on tests taken by 15-year-olds from around the world.
The UK remains outside the top 10 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study, which assessed students’ maths, reading and science levels in 81 countries and regions, but it did make some progress in the international education rankings.
The OECD study found “an unprecedented drop in performance” across many countries – including the UK – compared with 2018.
In maths and reading, all gains observed by UK teenagers in 2018 were reverted as the mean scores dropped from 502 to 489 (13 points) and from 504 to 494 (10 points), respectively.
The UK’s mean score in science in the latest Pisa study confirmed a decade-long decline in performance, dropping to 500 in 2022 from 505 in 2018.
The OECD said that 20 points is broadly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning.
But the UK climbed the global league tables for maths and reading despite its lower scores as other countries saw even larger declines in attainment in the years after the pandemic.
Schools minister Damian Hinds acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic had “set the world back” in terms of education performance and had been a “big blow” in England.
Compared with 2018, mean performance in OECD countries fell by 10 points in reading scores and almost 15 points in maths.
The study is usually carried out every three years but the latest round of assessment – which was due to take place in 2021 – was postponed by a year due to Covid-19.
The exceptional circumstances throughout this period included lockdowns and school closures in many countries, including the UK.
Speaking at a launch event for the report in London, Mr Hinds said: “In much of the OECD, scores have fallen.
“Covid-19 has set the world back and that’s concentrated among disadvantaged students. England is no exception to that on both counts.”
When asked about the impact that Covid-19 has had on educational progress in the country, Mr Hinds told the press on Tuesday: “First of all there is no doubt what you say that Covid is a big blow. It’s a big blow in England. It’s a big blow in the world.
“I think almost every country in the survey is badly impacted by Covid-19.”
🗓️ The PISA 2022 results will be available on Dec 5th.
📝PISA analysed data about young peoples’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
💭 How did student performance behave 2018 and 2022?
— Andreas Schleicher (@SchleicherOECD) November 16, 2023
Despite its scores falling across the three subjects, the UK has climbed the rankings in maths to joint 12th, alongside Belgium, Denmark and Poland, up from joint 17th in 2018.
In reading, the UK has also risen to 13th, up from joint 14th in 2018, when the previous Pisa assessments were carried out.
In science, the UK was ranked joint 14th, alongside Slovenia – the same ranking achieved in 2018.
Singapore topped all three categories in the 2022 Pisa assessment.
Among the UK’s four devolved education systems, England was the highest performing nation in maths, reading and science.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD education and skills director, said: “The decline in outcomes (in the UK) has been slower than on average across OECD countries. In that sense, the UK has been relatively more successful.”
But he added: “High-performing countries, like Singapore, Japan, actually continue to improve results during the pandemic and that’s certainly not what you can say for the UK.”
On the impact of the pandemic on teenagers’ performance in the 2022 study, Mr Schleicher said: “I think Covid-19 probably played some role but I would not overrate it.”
Around 690,000 students took the Pisa assessment in 2022 across the 81 countries and regions.
In the UK, nearly 13,000 students participated in the study where they sat two-hour tests, each devoted to one subject.
Students also answered a background questionnaire which sought information about their attitudes, beliefs, their homes, and their school and learning experiences.
The OECD report suggested that around one in 10 teenagers in the UK said they had missed at least one meal a week because they did not have enough money to buy food.
Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for greater support to families who have fallen into poverty and she said breakfast clubs were needed “everywhere”.
“I tell you as someone who missed my lunch often, often didn’t have bus money or lunch money, when you are hungry you can’t learn,” Dame Rachel told the launch event in Westminster.
Teenagers in the UK are more likely to feel unsafe in school away from class than their peers in many other countries, the OECD has suggested.
Around one in eight (13%) students polled in the UK reported not feeling safe in areas of the school outside the classroom such as the toilets, cafeteria or hallways, compared with the average across OECD’s member countries (10%).
Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank, said: “Today’s Pisa results confirm that England, alongside many other OECD nations, has experienced considerable learning loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
She added: ““The government must prioritise education and, in particular, address the urgent teacher recruitment and retention issues that the country is facing.
“But the challenges for young people span wider than just education. In order to thrive in school and out, children and young people need to have improved access to public health services, safe and secure housing and be without the threat of living in poverty.”