Pupils in English schools improve in maths but 20 per cent described themselves as "always worried"

Press Release

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Published today, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - a major international study of educational achievement - shows that 15-year-old pupils in England performed significantly better in mathematics in 2018 than 2015. However, as part of the attitudinal survey on wellbeing, although 93% of pupils described themselves as sometimes or always feeling happy, 66% of pupils described themselves as sometimes or always feeling worried.

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 are assessed on their competence to address real-life challenges involving reading, mathematics and science. The major focus for 2018 was on reading with science and mathematics as minor subjects.

Boys continue to score higher than girls in mathematics

Boys’ scored significantly higher than girls in mathematics and performed significantly better than in PISA 2015.

The overall improvement on 2015 is also attributed to lower achievers improving at a faster rate than higher achievers. Overall, pupils in England performed well above the OECD average, with a higher proportion of top performing pupils working at the highest PISA proficiency levels (Levels 5 and 6) and a lower proportion working at the lowest levels (below Level 2) defined as ‘basic proficiency’ by OECD.

Pupils in England significantly outperformed the OECD average in reading

Pupils in England outperformed the OECD average by 18 score points in reading, with girls significantly outperforming boys. The gap in performance between girls and boys was significantly lower than across the OECD.

Pupils in England were more confident in their reading ability than the OECD average. However, 48% of pupils in England stated they did not read for enjoyment, more than the OECD average of 42% [1].

Science scores have not changed significantly since PISA 2015

Pupils in England performed significantly above the OECD average in science. England had a significantly higher proportion of pupils working at the higher PISA proficiency levels (Levels 5 and 6) than the OECD average, and a significantly lower proportion of pupils working below the basic proficiency level (Level 2). There were no significant differences in the performance of boys and girls in England, which was consistent with PISA 2015.

Further investigation needed on pupil wellbeing

On average, pupils in England were less satisfied with their lives than pupils across the OECD countries. The results reflect the attitudes of students who participated in the study and warrants further investigation.

Pupils were asked 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. 93% of pupils felt happy sometimes or always, compared with 91% on average in the OECD countries. However, they were more likely to have negative feelings compared with pupils across the OECD. In particular, 66% of pupils in England reported that they sometimes or always feel worried (50% across the OECD) and 53% of pupils in England reported sometimes or always feeling miserable (39% across the OECD).

In addition to the key findings above, the study also revealed that:

  • The number of countries outperforming England in mathematics decreased from 19 in 2015 to 12 in 2018.
  • Pupils in England scored significantly higher in science than pupils in OECD countries on average. Ten countries outperformed pupils in England in science. In 2018, pupils in England performed significantly above the OECD average for reading, as they did for the first time in 2015. Nine countries outperformed England in reading.
  • The gap in reading performance between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in England was similar to the OECD average. However, the proportion of pupils who succeed academically despite their socioeconomic background, that is, who are academically resilient, was larger in England than OECD countries, on average.
  • Headteachers in England reported that pupil truancy and pupils skipping classes were less of a problem than teachers in the OECD on average.
  • In comparison with the OECD average, pupils in England had similar expectations of their highest level of qualification, but were more likely to expect to have a professional job in the future

Chief Executive, Carole Willis said: “PISA provides a valuable and rigorous way for nations to benchmark their pupils’ performance and learn from policies and practices in other countries. Pupils in England have continued to perform well in reading and science and have made significant improvement in maths. What requires further analysis and consideration is pupils’ perception of their wellbeing. While most pupils were happy, pupils in England were more likely to have negative feelings than pupils across the OECD countries, which raises questions which need further investigation.”

Trends in Performance across the UK

Since 2015, Scotland has significantly improved in reading following a similarly sized decrease between 2012 and 2015, 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. In England, PISA 2018 was conducted in October 2018 to January 2019, with a sample of 5174 15-year-old pupils in 170 schools.

The PISA 2018 study was carried out in the UK by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

[1] When reporting pupil attitudes 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.

NFER was contracted to carry out PISA 2018 in the UK on behalf of the Departments of Education in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. However this press release has been produced solely by NFER and does not necessarily reflect the views of the respective departments.