Release date: 06/12/2016

New research has been published today by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

PISA is conducted every three years, testing pupils in four subjects (science, mathematics, reading and collaborative problem solving), with one subject the particular focus each time. The research aims to provide evidence on how the achievement and abilities of 15-year-olds varies across countries.  Science was the focus in 2015.

In England, PISA 2015 was conducted in November to December 2015, with a sample of 5,194 pupils in England from across 206 schools. The vast majority of England’s participating pupils were born between September 1999 and August 2000, meaning they came to the end of primary school during 2010, and were the last cohort to take the GCSE examinations before they are reformed.


  • The average science, mathematics and reading scores of pupils in England have not changed since 2006.
  • English 15-year-olds continue to perform significantly above the OECD average in science whilst they remain at the OECD average for mathematics.
  • For the first time, in 2015, pupils in England performed (only just) above the OECD average in reading. Although there has been no significant change in England’s absolute score, our performance relative to other countries has changed since 2012 as they improve or decline around us.
  • The OECD average has fallen (but only significantly in science) meaning that England’s reading performance is now above average despite having not changed since 2012, and our relative science position has increased compared to 2012 as other countries’ average scores have dropped.
  • East Asian countries continue to dominate the top positions in PISA. Singapore tops PISA 2015 in science, reading and mathematics.

Achievement in science

The average science score in England has remained the same since 2006 and is higher than the average score of 15-year-olds in 52 countries.

The comparatively high science performance of England’s high-achievers is a notable strength of the English educational system.  Only three countries (Singapore, Taiwan and Japan) where the top 10% of pupils are more than one school term (four months of schooling) ahead of their peers in England. However, the gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in science is also bigger in England than in many other OECD countries.

Although boys in England have achieved a higher average score in science than girls in the past, in 2015 there is no evidence of a gender gap in performance.

Achievement in mathematics

The average mathematics score for England has remained the same since 2006.

Mathematics is the only subject in which China significantly outperforms England in 2015.

The relatively poor mathematics skills of England’s low-achieving pupils stands out as a weakness of England’s education system. England’s lowest achievers have mathematics skills that are significantly below the mathematics skills of the lowest achievers in several other countries.

England has a particularly unequal distribution of 15-year-olds’ mathematics achievement.

The gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in mathematics in England is above the OECD average and is equivalent to over eight years of schooling.

Boys continue to out-perform girls in mathematics in England (and most other countries).

On average the mathematics skills of boys in England is around a third of a year of schooling ahead of girls. This compares to the results for reading, in which girls do better, and science where girls and boys are equal.

Achievement in reading

There is no evidence of a significant change in average reading scores in England since 2006.

The performance of the top 10% of pupils in England is relatively strong in reading. There are relatively few countries across the world where the 6 highest-achieving pupils have substantially stronger reading skills than those in England.

The gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils in reading in England is similar to the OECD average. However, this masks some important points. In only seven countries is the spread of results (in terms of the gap between the top and bottom 10 percent of performers) greater than in England. Only one of these – New Zealand – is a top-ten country in terms of average reading scores.

Boys in England continue to perform less well than girls in reading by an average of around nine months of schooling. There is a similar gender gap in reading skills in many other OECD countries.

School management and resources

Headteachers in England are more likely to use pupil performance data in setting their school’s educational objectives than in any of the ten countries with the highest average science scores.

Moreover, headteachers in England are more positive about the science resources that are available within their school than in the typical OECD or high performing country. Likewise, they are generally positive about the science equipment that their school has available.

Headteachers in England are less likely to report that their staff are resistant to change.

Almost half of secondary school pupils in England are taught in schools where the headteacher believes that staff shortages are hindering learning; this is 15 percentage points above the OECD average and the average across the 10 high-performing countries.

Headteachers in England are also more likely to report problems with physical infrastructure than headteachers in other industrialised countries.

Another key concern of headteachers in England is the level of absenteeism amongst their staff; a quarter of secondary pupils are taught in schools where the headteacher believes that this is hindering pupils’ learning.

Whereas only 19% of headteachers who lead an outstanding school agree that their staff do not meet individual pupils’ needs, this increases to 42% in schools that require improvement, and up to 77% for the inadequate group.

Variation in scores by pupil characteristics

There is a relatively large gap in England between high and low performers. The difference between the top and bottom 10% of pupils in England is over eight years of schooling in both science and maths – a larger gap than in most OECD countries.

Pupil performance in England also varies according to immigrant status. Pupils from immigrant backgrounds achieve lower scores than those who were born and raised in the UK. Again, England is not unusual in this respect. White pupils in England also obtain higher scores than their Black and Asian peers although White pupils from less advantaged backgrounds perform significantly lower than more advantaged White pupils.

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