Is the UK tumbling down the international league tables?

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Scare stories about UK pupils plummeting down league tables are exaggerated and not statistically robust.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009

“We used to be fourth in the world for our science education, now we are 16th. We used to be seventh in the world for the quality of our children’s literacy. Now we are 25th. We used to be eighth in the world for the quality of our maths, now we are 28th,” said Michael Gove to the Conservative Conference in 2011. But these figures can only be upheld by using the results of the PISA tests for the UK in 2000. These showed the UK apparently doing well. However, OECD has since found that the PISA statistics for the UK in 2000 were flawed and warned that they should not be used for comparison.

The only figures which can be used to show UK performance are those for the years 2006, 2009 and 2013 The results for the UK in 2012 showed a slight, but statistically insignificant, rise in performance (see faq re PISA for detailed data).

The Learning Curve 2012

This analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and Pearson ranked the UK in 6th place behind Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore (see faq re The Learning Curve 2012 for more information).

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011

PIRLS 2011 showed a relative rise in the performance of English 10 year-olds in reading comprehension from 19th out of 45 participants in 2007 to 10th= in 2011. 10 year-olds from Northern Ireland did even better – they were 5th. It should be borne in mind, however, that the participants taking part in PIRLS 2011 were not the same as in 2007 – new countries joined while others dropped out (see PIRLS faq).

Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS) 2007

In the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS) 2007, English 10 year-olds and 14 year-olds scored the highest marks among European countries in maths and science.

Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS) 2011: Maths

TIMSS still ranks England among the top ten countries for primary maths. 

English 14 year-olds were placed with average TIMSS performers such as Finland (a top performer in PISA tests 2009 and 2012) and USA (a weak performer in PISA 2012).

Trends in Maths and Science Survey (TIMMS) 2011: Science

Although the performance of English pupils in TIMSS 2011 science tests remains high, their position at the top has fallen since 2007 when they were top of the European league at ages 10 and 14.

The performance of English 14 year-olds in science has been consistently high since 1995.  (See faq re TIMSS for detailed analysis)


UNICEF ranked the UK for, among other things, “educational welfare” (see UNICEF faq for information).

OECD Adult Skills Survey 2013

The first OECD Adult Skills Survey 2013 placed England/Northern Ireland at 18th out of 20 countries. The USA was bottom (See FAQ How did England do in the 2013 Adult Skills Survey for data).

Updated 8 December 2013