The latest Pisa rankings from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have once again been dominated by Asian education system with Singapore claiming first place, followed closely by Japan. Taipei, Macao, Vietnam, Hong Kong and mainland China, all join Singapore and Japan, to total seven Asian economies in the Pisa Top 10, while the highest ranking Western nations are Estonia (3rd), Finland (5th) and Canada (7th).

The Programme for International Student Assessments (Pisa) are the closest thing there is to a global standarised assessment, and despite what some critics say, there is general agreement that this programme provides the most reliable global indicator of student achievement.

To ensure the Pisa results provide an accurate account of student achievement, the OECD randomly selects thousands of 15-year-old students from schools across participating nations. The programme focuses on 15-year-olds because students of this age have completed compulsory education, and so their abilities reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the education systems they are graduating from. The most current PISA tests covered 184 items in science, 103 items in reading, 81 in mathematics, 117 in collaborative problem-solving and 43 in financial literacy.

The latest results are based on testing from 2015 which assessed over 500,000 students from 72 economies. Singapore, the top-performing country in each subject area, scored 564 in Mathematics, 556 in Science and 530 in literacy, well above the OECD average for each subject which is around 490 points. In contrast, the UK ranked 27th in Mathematics, the lowest position since the country began participating in the Pisa tests. In reading, the UK ranked 22nd, while the nation’s most successful scores came from Science, for which the UK reached 15th position.

It has been convincingly argued that 30 points in the ranking equate to one year’s worth of schooling, which suggests that students in Singapore are as much as two years ahead of students in the UK and three years ahead of their American students. Commenting on the phenomenal success of the Singaporean education system, which is setting new standards in student achievement, Mr. Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD explained, “They (Singapore) are constantly looking outside for ways to improve, questioning the established wisdom. That’s the classic thing that Singapore has always done.”

The 2015 Pisa results also indicate that the US, the UK and much of Europe is stagnating while Asia continues to improve. In the Science assessment France scored 495 while, the US scored 496, marginally above than the OECD average. The UK, Germany and Netherlands all achieved the same score of 509. However, when you compare these with the top 5 Science scores from Asia, the ability gap becomes apparent, with Hong Kong (523), Macao (529),Taiwan (532), Japan (538) and of course Singapore (556) all comfortably ahead.

The opinion that student achievement in the UK is stagnating, was shared by Andreas Schleicher, who describe the UK’s results as “flat in a changing world”. Furthermore, the UK is not just losing ground to East Asian education systems, but also many European systems, including Estonia, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Poland.

This lack of improvement will be a concern to the Conservative government who have overseen the implementation of reforms in testing, curricula and school structure. These new educational policies had been intended to, “make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering, measured by improved performance in the Pisa league tables”.

During the previous election campaign, former education secretary, Nicky Morgan, had claimed that England’s schools would be “the best in Europe for literacy and maths by 2020”, but these recent results clearly indicate that those ambitions are becoming increasingly unrealistic.

Following these latest results, British politicians and policy makers will probably focus their attention on East Asia hoping to emulate the region’s success. However, the success of East Asian nations is not easily replicated, and while pedagogies, such as the ‘Mastery Method’ can benefit British students, the cultural dimensions, which set high expectations and encourage East Asian students to study diligently, cannot be easily transferred. Instead, policy makers would benefit from consulting local educational specialist who better understanding the challenges facing students in the UK.

Prior to the release of this year’s Pisa report, the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) issued a series of essays entitled “Building a World-Class Education System that is Fair” in anticipation that the Pisa results would be “wake-up call” for the UK.

The FEA urges schools and policy makers to focus on closing the gap between pupils from low income backgrounds and their wealthier peers as a way of improving England’s performance. As Sir Richard Lambert, Chair of the FEA, explains, “If we don’t act with speed to close the gap in performance, our country risks becoming an underachieving offshore island which in the next decade or two will watch much of the rest of the world go racing by.

The success of countries like the Netherlands and Finland also make it absolutely clear that it is possible to combine high performance with high levels of equity in education. We now need new policies and systems in place to meet that ambition”

The essays also include input from Claire Read, of Save the Children, who argues there is a need for greater support for young people before they arrive at school. While Catherine Knowles from Achievement for All, identifies the need for early years education to include a greater focus on the ‘essentials of numeracy’. Brett Wigdortz from Teach First argues that a world-class education system is within reach in the UK, but we must address urgently address the teacher shortage and promote the profession, especially to ease the shortage in Maths and Science teachers.

To what extent the 2015 Pisa results will influence future policy decisions in education remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – if the government wishes to improve student achievement there needs to be better investment in teachers and teacher development. Generally speaking, those countries which register high academic achievement have acted to make teaching prestigious and selective, and they provide educators with the necessary financial security to ensure teachers can focus on meeting their students’ needs without having to constantly worry about making ends meet.

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