Is Mathematics Education in England Working for Everyone? NFER Analysis of the PISA Performance of Disadvantaged Pupils

Rebecca Wheater, Ben Durbin, Rachel Classick, Stephen McNamara

16 December 2016

Successive governments have sought to address the gap in educational outcomes between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds. Most recently, this includes UK Prime Minister Theresa May articulating her vision for a “country that works for everyone”.

The release of new data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) alongside the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides a unique opportunity to examine the impact of disadvantage on pupils in England from an international perspective.

In this report, we focus on performance in mathematics and find that:

  • The gap between the most and least disadvantaged is equivalent to over three years’ of schooling. This is close to the OECD average.
  • The impact of socio-economic background on mathematics performance in England can be seen from the most to least disadvantaged. Its effects are even greater when comparing high and average socio-economic status pupils than when comparing low and average socio-economic status.
  • Examining other countries and the lack of change over time suggests that it is very difficult for countries to reduce the impact of socio-economic background on performance.
  • Disadvantage is a broad concept, and policy that focuses simply on addressing economic disadvantage is unlikely to be effective. Furthermore, many factors other than socio-economic background also affect performance (such as other pupil characteristics and the impact schools have on outcomes), and these other factors are relatively more important to pupil performance in England than in other countries.
  • Disadvantaged pupils who perform better than average, given their socio-economic background, tend to be autumn-born, are more confident in their abilities, and are less likely to truant.