England is top UK nation in tests because of recent reforms, says minister

Janet Downs's picture

England outperformed Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the 2015 international PISA tests and it’s because of the ‘core-knowledge’ curriculum, Asian-style maths mastery and systematic synthetic phonics said schools minister Nick Gibb in a recent debate.  He added it was also down to teachers’ efforts but the message was clear: the performance of English pupils in PISA 2015 was mainly caused by reforms since 2010.

It would be miraculous indeed if reforms which didn’t come into force until at least half-way through the Coalition years had much effect on 15 year-olds taking PISA in 2015.  The National Curriculum, which isn’t even compulsory in academies, didn’t start until September 2014.  And, as I’ve noted before in relation to synthetic phonics and maths mastery, evidence cited by Nick Gibb is only evidence approved by Nick Gibb.

Of course, Gibb could be talking about the CoreKnowledgeUK – the much-hyped syllabus rehashed from the US version written by E D Hirsch.  But it’s not compulsory (yet) although it did influence the reformed National Curriculum.  And, as noted above, this didn’t begin until just over a year before English 15 year-olds would have taken the 2015 PISA tests.

Before claiming credit for England’s top UK position in PISA 2015, Gibb should read the Government’s own report on England’s performance.  It says ‘performance in England has not changed’:   ‘The average science, mathematics and reading scores of pupils in England have not changed since 2006’.  England’s ascent to the top was because of ‘changes in other parts of the United Kingdom, notably declines in average science performance in Scotland and Wales’.

England’s rise, then, was because scores in other parts of the UK declined. 

What Gibb should be concerned about rather than puffing the supposed superiority of England is the poor performance of England’s low-achieving pupils.  In science, the gap between high-achievers and the weakest is ‘bigger in England than in many other OECD countries’.  In maths, the low performance of bottom achievers is a ‘weakness of England’s education system’.  And the weakest 10% in England perform worse in maths than low-achievers in Northern Ireland and Scotland despite all three countries having similar average scores overall.  So much for Gibb’s bragging.


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Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 30/06/2017 - 14:31

Gibb is spouting garbage. When PISA results are properly analysed, out of the 70 nations in PISA the UK comes (49th) and USA (53rd) in maths.

There is clearly very little to be positive about that is for sure. Even more depressing is that the frantic pace of reform is to be stepped up with more testing, more Academies and Free Schools, more faith schools with their own enhanced sectarian admissions rules and now the imposition of selective grammar schools now only belatedly abandoned . It would be hard to come up with proposals to make the national education system worse.

See these articles for the true PISA rank orders.



The most important message to the DfE is the key role of cognitive ability in driving higher attainment. This needs more of the well-proven developmental pedagogy that the ideology of marketisation is replacing with knowledge-focussed rote learning and behaviourism, enforced by ever more draconian and abusive systems of harsh discipline.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 30/06/2017 - 15:12

I see that Gibb is arguing that even if the performance of English schools in PISA is not good (in fact it is terrible see my articles - links in previous post), at least it is better than Scotland and Wales.

The PISA rankings are flawed because they do not take account of the IQ of the cohorts taking the tests. See my articles for explanation of this.

Scotland and Wales have even higher proportions of de-industrialised, poverty blighted towns than England. It is therefore highly likely that the UK average IQ of 100 is made up of a higher figure for England balanced by lower figures for Scotland and Wales. This being the case the Scottish and Welsh governments would be very foolish not to take this into account in evaluating the PISA scores for those countries compared to England.

We do not have mean CATs scores for Scotland and Wales PISA cohorts, but my guess is that they are much lower than the English cohorts in which case on my PISA analysis both countries would come out well above England.  

There is no indication that the devolved governments are are taking account of any of this. My advice to the Scottish and Welsh governments would be to introduce universal Y6 CATs testing in all schools. It would certainly be a great mistake to believe that the English SATs regime is a good model to be copied.

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