Our ‘world class’ science education performs a rare hat trick – reform with caution

By Julie Nelson

Tuesday 10 September 2013

England Joins the Elite for Maths and Science; this was the headline of a TES article in 2008. English pupils reportedly 'pulled off a stunning result in the rankings of 10 and 14 year olds across 59 countries’ in the international Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

What a positive headline – and what an endorsement of the quality of teaching and learning in maths and science education in England.  This, lamentably, is a message that has disappeared.

Four years later, TES ran with the far more muted headline: International Rankings Deliver Mixed Messages. The article commented that England’s ‘ranking’ in science was down from fifth out of 45 in the in 2007 TIMSS study to ninth out of 42 in TIMSS 2011. News reports such as these marked the onset of criticisms of English students’ performance relative to students in other nations, which continues to prevail.

But is it really this simple? Can what are in effect marginal changes in one country’s standing relative to others be branded so easily as ‘failure’ or ‘decline’?  Is what is classed as ‘failure’ or ‘success’ in the media too often influenced by the realpolitik of moment?  We believe so, and this is why we argue for an evidence-informed approach to ensure that good education remains the central goal.

The complexities of international comparison:

In a recent NFER blog, PISA Leaning Tower or Architectural Marvel?, Newman Burdett explores why rankings are not a useful tool for international comparisons and the care that must be taken in interpreting the results. We know that international rankings have very wide error margins; these are such that reported differences in performance between countries with quite different positions in the ‘rankings’ are often, in reality, negligible.

A world class science education:

Our recently published policy paper: Science Education: have we overlooked what we are good at? may surprise many – it tells a story of England’s world-class science education system, and of our students’ performance in science being among the best achieving countries in TIMSS 2011. If we look at the highest benchmarks of student achievement (rather than the headline ‘rankings’) for Grade 8 students (Year 9 in England) we see that England’s student performance at the ‘Advanced’ benchmark is bettered only by students in a small number of pacific-rim countries – Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and is equalled by students in the Russian Federation.

Much has been made over recent years about the growing prowess of such countries, and about our fall in performance in relation to them.  Although it is true that English students are ‘beaten’ in terms of advanced science achievement by students in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, let us remember some key points:

  • Firstly, there are many other countries involved in TIMSS, including European and former Commonwealth countries – almost all of whom are bettered in performance by students in England
  • Secondly, England’s performance in relation to other countries is relative.  A change in the rankings does not necessarily signify that English school students’ performance has altered per se.
  • Thirdly, a student’s science learning is not solely about test results and achievement levels. Student engagement (as demonstrated through enthusiasm and passion for, and enjoyment of, learning) is something that, sadly, has largely disappeared from the media and political agenda .

Our policy paper unearths some fascinating findings about student engagement in science.

Only England, Hong Kong and Singapore can claim to have struck a balance between consistently high achievement scores; high levels of science enjoyment and engagement; and acquisition of higher-order thinking skills. This is something about which we should be rightly proud.

By contrast, students in Korea, Taiwan and Japan (high achieving pacific-rim countries) have very low levels of science engagement, enjoyment and interest relative to students in England. They are also far less likely than students in England to aspire to a job involving science.  These points are not reported in press items, and are rarely focused on by politicians.

Reform with caution:

England continues to offer a world-class science education. Not only do we have relatively high performance in science; but our students have the necessary higher-order thinking skills to use that knowledge; and have positive attitudes towards learning science. This is triple cause for celebration.

It is also very good reason to ensure that current revisions to the Key Stage 4 science curriculum are made carefully, adopting a scientific (or evidence-informed) approach. Reform should not be made for the sake of reform, and we should be incredibly cautious about international ‘policy borrowing.’ Strong achievement in some of the pacific-rim countries comes at a very high price, which we should not seek to emulate without careful consideration.

Perhaps, on reflection, the 2012 press article should have read: England remains in the elite for science and pulls off a ‘rare hat trick’. England’s science education system is one to be proud of.