Northern Ireland consolidates its position as one of the world's best nations for reading

Press Release

Tuesday 3 December 2019

  • Pupils score above OECD average for reading
  • Further investigation needed on pupil well-being

Published today, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – a major international study of educational achievement – shows that for the first time since participating in the study, 15-year-old pupils in Northern Ireland performed significantly above the OECD average in reading. However, when asked about their wellbeing, pupils in Northern Ireland were more likely to feel scared, worried and sad than pupils in other countries.

Co-ordinated and led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA assesses the knowledge and life skills of pupils aged 15.

Pupils performance in reading

The latest study found that pupils in Northern Ireland for the first time, have a higher reading score (501) than the OECD average (487). The proportion of pupils working at the higher proficiency levels (Levels 5 and 6) has increased between 2015 and 2018, from 6% in 2015 to 9% in 2018 and the proportion of pupils working below Level 2 has remained stable since 2015.

The gap in reading performance and socio-economic disadvantage

The gap in reading performance between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in Northern Ireland was relatively low and pupils in Northern Ireland were relatively well able to overcome the disadvantages of their background.

Pupils attitudes to reading

Although they performed strongly in reading, pupils in Northern Ireland were less likely to read books, and were less likely to read for enjoyment than other pupils across the OECD countries. 61% of pupils reported that they did not read for enjoyment compared to 42% across the OECD.

Pupils performance in mathematics

Northern Ireland’s average score in mathematics of 492 was similar to the OECD average (489) and has remained stable over time.

Girls outperform boys in reading and science but not in mathematics

In Northern Ireland, and for the majority of countries across the OECD girls outperformed boys in reading and this attainment gap has increased since 2015. In science, girls outperformed boys in Northern Ireland and this was the case on average across the OECD. In mathematics the scores of girls and boys were similar in Northern Ireland, however across the OECD boys outperformed girls.

Northern Ireland’s overall performance in science is not significantly different from 2015, but has declined significantly since 2012. There has been a similar decline across OECD countries, on average but the decline in Northern Ireland has been greater so merits further investigation.

Further investigation needed in pupil well-being

Pupils were asked questions about their wellbeing: their satisfaction with their life, to what extent their life has meaning or purpose, positive and negative feelings, and their experiences of bullying.

Pupils in England, Wales and Scotland were less satisfied than the OECD average while pupils in Northern Ireland were similar to the OECD average in their satisfaction with their lives. The results reflect the self-reported attitudes of students in the study and warrant further investigation.[1]

93% of pupils felt happy sometimes or always in Northern Ireland, compared to 91% in the OECD countries. Pupils in Northern Ireland were more likely to feel sad, scared or worried than pupils across the OECD. In particular 65% of pupils in Northern Ireland reported sometimes or always feeling worried (50% across the OECD).

Further findings from the PISA study

The study also revealed that:

  • In reading pupils from Northern Ireland performed similarly to their peers in England and Scotland all of whom outperformed pupls in Wales
  • In both mathematics and science pupils in England outperformed their peers in the rest of the UK
  • Pupils in the Republic of Ireland outperformed pupils in Northern Ireland in reading whereas the performance of pupils in Northern Ireland in mathematics and science was similar to their peers in the Republic of Ireland
  • The gap in performance between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in Northern Ireland was relatively low and pupils in Northern Ireland were relatively well able to overcome the disadvantages of their background
  • Northern Ireland scored significantly higher than 45 of the 76 reported countries in mathematics and the top performers remain largely composed of countries from east Asia. The number of countries significantly outperforming Northern Ireland in mathematics decreased from 18 in 2015 to 17 in 2018.

NFER Chief Executive, Carole Willis, said: “PISA provides a valuable and rigorous way for nations to benchmark their pupils’ performance. The findings from PISA 2018 show that Northern Ireland has consolidated its world class position in reading and its maths performance has remained stable. However it is concerning that a downward trend in science has continued. Pupil well-being comes through as an area of concern and should be considered as a possibility for future research.”

Trends in Performance across the UK

Since 2015, Scotland has significantly improved in reading, whilst England, Wales and Northern Ireland have remained stable.

In science there has been a decline in performance over successive cycles of PISA since 2006 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while England has remained stable.

In mathematics, both England and Wales show an improving trend across successive PISA cycles, while Scotland has declined and Northern Ireland has remained broadly stable.

79 countries participated in PISA 2018, including all members of the OECD and all four countries within the United Kingdom.

[1] We do not report on whether differences are statistically significant as, due to the sample sizes, small differences can be statistically significant but not meaningful from a policy or practice perspective. Instead, we report on the size of differences.

Although NFER was contracted to collect the data for PISA 2018 in the UK on behalf of the Departments of Education in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, this publication has been produced solely by NFER and does not necessarily reflect their views.