Northern Ireland primary schools continue to rank among the best in the world in maths

Press Release

Tuesday 8 December 2020

Pupils aged 9 and 10 in Northern Ireland continue to perform very well in mathematics, the latest cycle of TIMSS [1], a long running international survey of pupil achievement in mathematics and science reveals.

Results from the 2019 survey, which measures the performance of pupils from countries all over the world, shows that in mathematics, Northern Ireland significantly outperformed 51 of the 58 participating countries and were outperformed by only five countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Japan).

Achievement of pupils in Northern Ireland in science was also above the international average. Compared to mathematics, more countries (18) significantly outperformed Northern Ireland, indicating a more ‘midfield’ position in science.

TIMSS is undertaken on a four-yearly cycle. Northern Ireland took part for the third time in 2019, with previous assessments being administered in 2015 and 2011. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) carried out the research for the Department of Education.

Other key findings on achievement from the 2019 survey include:

  • Mathematics and science attainment for 9 and 10 year olds in Northern Ireland remains high. Northern Ireland’s mathematics and science scores in 2019 are not significantly different from scores in 2015 or 2011
  • Northern Ireland’s position in science, relative to other countries, has improved compared with TIMSS 2015. In 2019, fewer countries significantly outperformed Northern Ireland in the science assessment, 18 countries compared with 21 in 2015
  • The attainment gap between the highest and lowest performers has increased since TIMSS 2015, this is true for mathematics and science. The gap in attainment is bigger for mathematics than it is for science.
  • Reflecting the high performance in mathematics overall, in Northern Ireland, just over a quarter of pupils reached the Advanced benchmark, the sixth highest percentage internationally. This mirrors the findings from 2015
  • In Northern Ireland there was gender equality, with no significant differences in attainment between girls and boys in either mathematics or science; this was also the case in both 2011 and 2015

Ben Durbin, Head of International Education at NFER commented: “TIMSS plays a valuable role in enabling nations to benchmark the performance of their education systems and identify areas for improvement. Northern Ireland has continued to perform well in the 2019 cycle, particularly in maths.

“NFER has been involved in running TIMSS since it first began in 1995, bringing a unique combination of expertise in education systems and robust, evidence-based research.  The insights we provide through TIMSS on students, their teachers and schools allow policymakers and schools in Northern Ireland to build on their strengths and address areas where their performance could be improved further.”

David Thomas, the National Research Coordinator for Northern Ireland commented: “The position in Northern Ireland is one of stability. That's a good story in mathematics because that performance is right at the top of the European countries, and that positon has been maintained since 2011. In science, Northern Ireland’s performance has also maintained its level, but that's more of a ‘midfield’ position among European countries.

“One advantage of the TIMSS study is the extensive background data which gives us tools to look deeper into the factors behind performance.”

TIMSS also provides rich contextual information on the learning environment, pedagogical experiences and attitudes of Year 6 pupils in Northern Ireland. Pupils who had the most positive attitudes towards mathematics and science also had higher average scores in those subjects. The TIMSS 2019 data suggests that pupils who experience a more positive school learning environment have higher levels of achievement than pupils that do not. For example, pupils in safe and orderly classrooms have higher levels of achievement than pupils that are not. This was the case in both mathematics and science in Northern Ireland and internationally.

The full national reports for TIMSS can be found on the TIMSS Research page. 

[1] Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)