England’s maths score in the triennial PISA tests has risen by more than ten percentage points since 2015 making it the highest performer in the UK. Wales also saw a rise. Scotland and Northern Ireland showed a slight decline.
Results in science are, however, falling, particularly outside England. Wales was the only country to show a slight improvement but still trails the other three.
The downward science trend is most marked among the highest achievers – pupils in the top 10%. Only in Northern Ireland did science scores increase since 2015 but are still not enough to arrest the UK decline since 2006.
Reading was the main focus of the 2018 tests. The UK as a whole is now above average and with a ‘comparatively narrow socio-economic gap’, says John Jerrim of Education DatLab. Disadvantaged pupils score about the same in all four countries but England’s advantaged pupils score higher than elsewhere particularly Wales. This means the gap in reading is wider in England because advantaged pupils shoot ahead.
Nevertheless, ‘mean scores in England were significantly above the OECD averages’ in maths, science and reading, says the NFER. Wales, despite its improvement, still lags behind.
Most media commentary on PISA results, muted this year because of the election, focuses on the UK rankings. But there is one area which the UK scores badly: life satisfaction among UK 15-year-olds. Nearly half, 47%, of UK’s teenagers are not satisfied with their life compared with 33% across the OECD.
Life satisfaction among teenagers has plummeted in three years. The percentage of 15-year-olds who rated life satisfaction as 7 or above on a 0-10 scale fell by 13 percentage points since 2015, the highest fall among OECD countries. The NFER, when considering pupils in England, says English teenagers are ‘much less likely to always feel joyful or cheerful than pupils in the OECD, on average’.
Does the prospect of failure drive low levels of life satisfaction? Jerrim says ‘possibly’. He finds ‘the link between fear of failure and life satisfaction is stronger in the UK than almost every other country.’ One possible explanation is that pupils (apart from Scotland) take PISA tests in the run-up to GCSEs. However, there’s a caveat: we only have life satisfaction data for 2015 and 2018. It may not be a long-term trend.
PISA 2018, for the first time, asked about ‘growth mindset’, the belief that intelligence isn’t fixed but is something that can be changed. Around 70% of UK teenagers said they had a growth mindset – the OECD average was 63%.
CORRECTION 4 December 10:26. The word 'mooted' was corrected to 'muted'. The headline has been changed from PISA 2018: maths up, science declines and life satisfaction low'.
FOOTNOTE: · PISA is the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment. Every three years since 2000 it tests 15-year-old students from all over the world in reading, mathematics and science. Results for the UK for 2000 were found to be flawed. 2003 results were refused. 2006 was the first year that UK tests were accepted. There are questions around the UK response for 2018 which could mean the data is unreliable.