Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Children’s performance in core skills subjects has sunk to its lowest level for a decade in the UK, according to an influential assessment of educational attainment, reflecting the blow to learning dealt by the pandemic.
The standard for 15-year-olds in maths was its worst since records began in 2006, results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests released on Tuesday showed. Reading levels scored on a par with a record low in 2009.
The data, based on assessments in 2022, comes against a backdrop of concern about learning loss during the coronavirus crisis, with UK education experts calling for more investment to help restore pre-pandemic standards.
John Bangs, senior adviser at global teachers’ union federation Education International, said schools faced a “double whammy” of Covid disruptions compounded by pre-existing structural issues in the education system.
The Pisa rankings, published by the OECD, are based on an assessment of 15-year-olds in 81 economies and is the main international benchmark for educational outcomes.
The report found that the performance of UK students on average ranked higher than most other developed economies with a score of 489 in maths, compared with the OECD average of 472.
But UK students in 2022 performed worse on average than UK students in 2018. In maths, the latest cohort was behind in learning by two-thirds of a year, in reading this fell to half a year.
The attainment gap between these two year groups could widen to as much as one year, once sampling biases were accounted for, according to the report.
Welsh schools registered the largest fall in outcomes within the UK, declining almost twice as much as in England. As a result the attainment gap between the two countries, which had been narrowing up until the pandemic, has widened since 2018.
The report highlighted a number of structural issues affecting developed economies such as declining engagement between teachers and parents and a lack of teaching staff, which had affected outcomes. It also noted that UK teacher shortages had increased markedly between 2018 and 2022.
“The most successful countries [in the Pisa survey] are those that had short lockdowns, while countries that did not work closely with teachers such as the UK tended to keep schools closed for longer,” Bangs said.
“[The UK has] a very hierarchical approach to school management, which takes leadership out of teachers’ hands,” he added.
Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said the effect of long-term factors had not been fully realised. “Covid is part of the story, but not everything,” he said. “The decline of educational outcomes started before the pandemic in most countries.”
Education secretary Gillian Keegan said England had been recognised as ranking highly for reading in particular and said the country was “firmly cemented as one of the top performing countries for education in the western world”.
“These results are testament to our incredible teachers, the hard work of students and to the government’s unrelenting drive to raise school standards over the past 13 years.”
Some education experts have called for more catch-up funding to be given to schools. Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, said: “The government needs to target resources towards the most disadvantaged pupils in the most disadvantaged areas.
“There’s been a big gap between the funding needed and the funding made available in England,” she added.
Data collection issues specific to the UK meant that the decline in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had been potentially underestimated, according to the Pisa report.
John Jerrim, professor of education and social statistics at University College London, said the pandemic had led to a rise in pupil absences, exacerbating longstanding problems with data collection.
Source: Financial Times