English children recorded improved results in a set of prestigious international maths and science exams published today, although the maths scores of English primary and secondary pupils remain far behind those in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Primary school pupils in Northern Ireland again showed remarkable maths prowess, holding the 2011 ranking of sixth overall, and the nation’s exam results were the best in Europe among the 49 countries taking part.
The four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) found that the performance of English pupils in the benchmark tests taken last year were remarkably similar to what it was in 2011.
England’s 13 and 14-year-olds produced their best effort in science, where England’s international rank rose from ninth to eighth out of the 39 countries taking part, keeping England ahead of the US, Canada and Australia. But England’s improved rank in science was mainly due to Finland not entering pupils in that age group, after having been the best-performing European country in 2011.
Although the latest Timss results didn’t show statistically significant improvements, they were enough for England to be ranked among the countries showing the best sustained improvements in science since the international measure was introduced in 1995.
The maths performances were once again dominated by a small group of countries led by Singapore in both age groups, and particularly in the 13-14 year-old age group, where its score was well ahead of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
The gap in test scores between the high-performing Asian countries and the rest widened compared with the previous rounds of tests. In the primary school age group, Singapore and Hong Kong were again top in maths, followed by South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, then Northern Ireland and Russia.
While England’s test results improved slightly, its international position in 13 and 14-year-olds’ maths slipped slightly, from 10th in 2011 to 11th overall, after being overtaken by Kazakhstan. Similarly, among nine and 10-year-olds, the better exam results did not stop England’s position going from ninth to 10th, nudged down by Ireland’s rise from 17th in 2011 to ninth this year.
Robert Coe, professor of education at the University of Durham, said: “These look like a respectable set of results for England. Although the media focus is often on the rankings, these are misleading, as each round of Timss (and each different age and subject) has a different set of countries included.
“A better indicator is to look at the actual score and compare it with previous performance. All four of the results for England are up on the previous round , though mostly by a marginal amount, either within the range of sampling variation or simply regaining the loss that was suffered between 2007 and 2011.
“A rise of 11 points in the score for age 14 maths is more substantial and looks like an upward trend, bringing it a bit more into line with the other three.”
England’s primary pupils did better than those of Finland – often held up as a model of high performance – which slipped from eighth to 16th. England also outperformed its European rivals Germany, Italy and France.
In maths, England’s nine to 10-year-olds scored 546, a rise of four points since 2011, while 13 to 14-year-olds scored 518, up by 11 points. In science, the primary school age group scored 536, up by seven points compared with 2011, and the 13 to 14-year-olds scored 537, an improvement of four points.
Northern Ireland, which only took part in the assessment of younger children, was 24 points ahead of England in maths, but did less well in science, where it was 16 points behind England.
School standards minister Nick Gibb welcomed the Timss results and said he expected even stronger results in future international tests following the introduction of a more demanding primary maths curriculum in 2014. “We know maths and science are highly valued by employers and are linked to higher earnings,” he said. “Today’s results show our pupils are more engaged and confident in both subjects compared with some of the top performing countries.
“Mastering these skills will ensure there is no limit to a pupil’s ambition and will ensure our future workforce has the skills to drive the future productivity and economy for this country.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers welcomed the improvements in performance is English schools.
He added: “Sadly however, this report makes it clear that problems with teacher recruitment are holding England back from the premier division of international performance.
“Schools leaders in England are more likely to report that maths and science vacancies are difficult to fill than the other countries included in this report. Around two thirds of year 9 pupils were taught in schools where vacancies in both maths and science were either somewhat or very difficult to fill.”
Hobby said the report also highlighted concerns over teacher retention. “Students in England are more likely to be taught by teachers with fewer years of experience than the average.
“England’s teachers are more likely to report challenging teaching conditions such as too many teaching hours and difficulty keeping up with curriculum changes. Job satisfaction among teachers in England is low compared to teachers in most other countries. All of which has a measurable impact on student attainment.”
The Timss scores are the first of two international benchmarks to be published within a week. On 6 December, the latest version of the OECD’s triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) will be published, providing a further measure of literacy, maths and science in England as well as Scotland and Wales.
The 2015 Pisa results will include London’s figures, available separately for the first time, which will reveal any differences between 15-year-olds in the capital and elsewhere in the UK.