Teenagers in the UK are still lagging behind their peers from high-performing countries in maths, reading and science, but some progress has been made in the international rankings.
The UK remains outside the top 10 in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which is based on tests taken by 15-year-olds from around the world, behind countries like Singapore, Japan and Estonia.
The study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which assessed students’ skills and knowledge in maths, reading and science in 81 countries and regions, found “an unprecedented drop in performance” across many countries compared with 2018.
In the UK, in maths and reading, all gains observed in the previous cycle 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.
Compared with 2018, mean performance in OECD countries fell by 10 points in reading scores and almost 15 points in maths.
A drop of 15 score points is the equivalent to three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning, according to the OECD report.
But despite the lower results, 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.
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.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD education and skills director, said: “In the last four years, since 2018, the drop in UK results is slightly less than across OECD countries. So the ranking has improved but the results did not.
“The decline in outcomes has been slower than on average across OECD countries. In that sense, the UK has been relatively more successful.”
🗓️ 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
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.”
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.
Issues with remote learning were highlighted in a questionnaire on Covid-related school closures – which 67% of students in the UK who took part in the study completed.
Nearly two in five (39%) of UK students who did the questionnaire said they had problems at least once a week with understanding school assignments during remote learning, and 30% with finding someone who could help them with schoolwork.
This was higher than the average across OECD countries (34% and 24% respectively).
Fewer than one in 10 (9%) UK students reported that they were asked daily by someone from the school how they were feeling during closures – lower than the OECD average.
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.
“I think there are underlying structural factors and they are much more likely to be permanent features of our education systems that policy-makers should really take seriously”.
When asked how well the UK coped with Covid-19 in the education sector, he added: “I think overall, I would say so-so.
“But at the same time scores have not declined dramatically so there must have been something that actually worked quite well.”
The results suggest teenagers in England experienced less learning loss on average than across the OECD countries, Mr Schleicher added.
Within the UK’s four devolved education systems, England was the highest achiever in maths, reading and science.
Wales was the lowest performing devolved nation within the UK for all three subjects, with Northern Ireland outperforming Scotland at maths and science and Scotland better than Northern Ireland at reading.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: “These results are testament to our incredible teachers, the hard work of students and to the Government’s unrelenting drive to raise school standards over the past 13 years.
“Taken together with our children being named ‘Best in the West’ for reading earlier this year, England is now firmly cemented as one of the top performing countries for education in the western world.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Pisa should not be used for cheap political point-scoring, to justify a narrowing of the curriculum or to denigrate the work of schools in any UK jurisdiction, particularly in the context of severe funding pressures, teacher shortages, the uneven impact of the recent pandemic and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis.”