5 December 2023

PISA cake! A decade of school reforms is paying off


The PISA international education rankings are arguably the most important league tables in UK public policy. When Nick Gibb, the veteran schools minister, was in opposition, he named PISA scores as the way we’d know if his reforms worked.  

There’s a sense today that a decade’s worth of work is paying off. English schools and teachers should be phenomenally proud of achieving their best ever ranking in maths: up to 11th in the world from 27th in 2009. 

However, there are some clouds casting shadows on the sunny uplands. Our actual score in maths fell, from a high point in 2018 back to 2012-15 levels. But our ranking rose because other countries dropped further. Our schools did a better job than others of mitigating the harm of Covid, but damage has still been done.

This round of PISA focused on maths, so we have a rich understanding of what’s going on.

First, it’s clear that our success in maths isn’t driven by rote learning at the expense of deeper understanding. This criticism has often been levelled by those who oppose the Singapore and Shanghai inspired approach taken in the past decade. But our score for mathematical reasoning is one of the best in the OECD.

Second, we’re performing well in critical areas of maths. England’s strongest area is data and statistics, which is becoming ever more important in the modern world. 

Third, we’re doing well at the top end but there is a lot of room for improvement. Nearly a quarter of English pupils rank as international top performers. This is good to see, but in Singapore more than half of pupils hit this standard. Our pupils aren’t less talented than those in Singapore. Given the English economy has 16,000 specialist STEM skilled vacancies that need a top mathematician to fill them, closing this gap really matters.

A striking feature of the UK data is that 15% of disadvantaged pupils are in our top quarter of performers. That’s less than what it should be, and every child missing from that is a tragedy, but it is a higher proportion than any other country in the developed world. We don’t have the segregation of advantage and disadvantage that you see in so many other countries.

Part of the reason for getting excited about PISA is that it allows us to compare across countries. In 2010, England chose to follow in the footsteps of far Eastern countries like Singapore. That approach has been vindicated, as those countries continue to perform well.

What about others? A vocal lobby pressed to follow the reforms being enacted in Finland, following the ‘Finnish miracle’ of high PISA performance. But since then Finland has steadily declined, and is now significantly below England.

The US, where many states have been reforming their maths approach in recent years, is in dire straits. Their performance is well below the OECD average and is one of the worst in the whole study. For a country dependent on technology and innovation this feels like an almost existential risk.

Scotland and Wales too are in trouble. Both have been on big curriculum reform journeys in the opposite direction to England’s, and both are falling further behind.

England’s school system has set the bar for improvement in maths over recent years – but we’re still falling short of our national potential. We’ve made huge improvements and withstood the damage of the pandemic well. We’ve done this by starting to catch up with the best countries in the world, and we need to continue that journey. If our children are just as talented as those in Singapore then we’re missing out on half of our potential top mathematicians. This comes at huge cost to them personally and to us economically. We’ve closed some of the gap. Now let’s close the rest.

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David is CEO of Mathematics Education for Social Mobility and Excellence. He is a former maths teacher, secondary headteacher and government advisor.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.