Pupils in Wales make significant improvement in mathematics

Press Release

Tuesday 3 December 2019

  • For the first time, pupils in Wales’ performance is similar to OECD average in reading, mathematics and science
  • Further investigation needed into well-being

Published today, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – a major international study of educational achievement – shows that maths scores for 15-year-old pupils in Wales have continued an upward trend seen since 2012. Wales’ performance is significantly higher than that seen in the 2009 and 2012 cycles of the study. This year has seen an increase in the attainment gap for reading in Wales which is mainly due to higher scores achieved by the top performing pupils. Scores for pupils in reading, mathematics and science were also similar to the OECD average, as compared to previous PISA studies in which they have been significantly below it. However, pupils in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland outperformed pupils in Wales in reading, on average, and in England pupils also scored significantly higher in maths and science.

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.

The gender gap closes in mathematics

Girls made a significant improvement in mathematics and there was no significant difference in the scores of girls and boys for the first time. In 2015, Wales had a statistically significant gender gap of 10 score points, favouring boys. In 2018 both boys and girls achieved higher scores than in 2015, but girls improved to a larger extent (15 points) than boys (7 score points).

Pupils in Wales are more confident in their reading ability, but less likely to read books

Pupils in Wales were more confident that they were good readers and that they were able to understand difficult texts than pupils in OECD countries on average. However, 44% of pupils in Wales rarely or never read books compared with 35% in the OECD. Since 2009, the last time reading was the focus of PISA, attitudes towards reading have in general become more negative, with the change in Wales greater than across the OECD, on average.

Performance in science

Pupils in Wales performance in science was similar to the OECD average, which is closer than Wales’s score has been for several PISA cycles. However, the OECD average for science has declined over recent PISA cycles. 

Further investigation needed into pupil wellbeing

On average, pupils in Wales were less satisfied with their lives than pupils across the OECD countries. 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 attitudes of students in the study and warrants further investigation.[1]

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.

In Wales, 93% of pupils felt happy sometimes or always, compared with 91% on average in the OECD.[2] However, they were more likely to have negative feelings compared with pupils across the OECD. In particular

  • 54% of pupils in Wales sometimes or always felt miserable (39% across the OECD).
  • 63% of pupils in Wales sometimes or always felt worried (50% across the OECD)
  • 80% of pupils in Wales sometimes or always felt joyful (89% across the OECD).
  • 79% of pupils in Wales sometimes or always felt cheerful (88% across the OECD).
  • 65% of pupils in Wales sometimes or always felt proud (71% across the OECD).

The study also revealed that:

  • Twenty-two countries outperformed Wales in reading, down from 30 in PISA 2015.
  • Nineteen countries outperformed Wales in science, compared with 28 in 2015.
  • Twenty-three countries outperformed Wales in mathematics, compared with 30 in 2015.
  • The gap in performance between the most and least disadvantaged pupils in Wales was relatively low and pupils in Wales were relatively well able to overcome the disadvantages of their background.
  • Pupils read online materials far more frequently than books or fiction. In Wales, 91% of pupils chat online at least several times a week, whereas 44% rarely or never read books.

NFER Chief Executive, Carole Willis, said: “PISA provides a valuable and rigorous way for nations to benchmark their pupils’ performance. Pupils in Wales have made encouraging progress in mathematics, particularly girls. Pupils in Wales performed similarly in reading to the OECD average and had a smaller gap between the achievement of their most and least disadvantaged pupils. However, we note that pupils are less likely to have positive feelings than the OECD average. While most pupils are generally happy, the results from PISA highlight the importance of a focus on wellbeing in schools.”

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. In Wales, PISA 2018 was conducted in October 2018 to January 2019, with 3155 15-year-old pupils in 107 schools.

[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.

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.