England’s Pisa is decidedly lop-sided

This year’s PISA results were launched in the offices of Policy Exchange. It was a fitting choice – according to Nick Gibb the former schools minister, given that of all the think tanks, Policy Exchange is one of those which has had the greatest influence over the direction of England’s education policy since the election of a Conservative led government in 2010. I arrived at the event late, so initially found myself stuck outside, peering through the glass door, eager to find out what data lay within. Eventually, I was let into a large boardroom where the OECD’s Alfonso Echazarra was presenting several dozen graphs which mapped out the latest trends in international education. Surrounded by photos of the retinue of senior politicians that have spoken at Policy Exchange events, I quickly realised England’s results told a story in two halves – but that the findings had a distinctly lop-sided skew.

As always, the results came with many caveats. PISA expert Professor John Jerrim was quick to point out sampling issues which may have inflated the UK’s results by around 8 points, as well as potential translation issues that may have depressed Wales’ flagging scores by up to 11 points. And of course, the pandemic had blown a hole through any semblance of continuity or stability. The post-covid drop in raw results around the globe underlines the long road to recovery that still lies ahead, but it would take a degree of wilfully self-critical contortion to deny that the academic performance of pupils in England is on a more positive trajectory than in many other PISA nations. This aligns with trends uncovered by other comparative international studies. It is also encouraging to see that levels of equity are relatively high (partly as a result of immigrant pupils’ high achievement), and that segregation is low.

This shouldn’t be a cause for schadenfreude or jingoistic pride. However, for those of us who believe that PISA measures something meaningful (and there are plenty who disagree), the first conclusion from the results was that the teachers and school leaders who’ve helped make it happen deserve some hearty congratulations, as do the pupils who’ve put in all the study.

Inevitably the question of whether policy makers deserve any of the credit will be more controversial. I’m inclined to believe some good has been done, and I suspect England’s performance will prompt a flurry of policy tourism. However, I hope that future visitors – as well as domestic policy makers – will spot the second big story in the data: that England’s strengths lean decidedly towards the educational and academic.

Echazarra’s graphs were at their most striking when they told, in vivid bars and lines, the story of children’s lives. And the story they told was that the UK’s children are hungry, unhappy and scared. One in ten have missed a meal in the last week due to poverty, a quarter have been victims of bullying in the last month and more than a quarter do not feel safe around school in places like corridors and toilets. Disturbingly, a quarter report not being satisfied with their lives. The OECD average is 18%.

PISA is not the only source to reveal England’s skew. The findings on poverty align with conclusions from a UNICEF study published the same week showing that child poverty had increased by 20% in the last seven years. Worrying trends around wellbeing are also evident in the long-running Good Childhood Index whilst NHS statistics constantly paint a worsening picture of youth mental health.

Meanwhile the findings on bullying and behaviour align with the DfE’s behaviour survey which showed that only 41% of pupils feel safe at school every day; one in ten pupils feel that they ‘never’ belong in school and one in five report being bullied in the last 12 months. This is part of a wider school climate in which a fifth of lesson time is lost to poor behaviour and a third of teachers do not feel supported to deal with persistently disruptive behaviour.

PISA’s influence over education policy has been well documented, so in the context of a looming election and widely anticipated change of government, this year’s statistics promise to be agenda-defining. Yet although curriculum, pedagogy and teacher training are writ large in Labour’s emerging plans for what the party would do in government, far less has been said about tackling poverty and ill-discipline. Keir Starmer’s ‘Opportunity Mission’ states that “our mission can only be achieved if we also tackle poverty” but the Labour leader has ruled out tangible steps towards tackling it, like ending the two child cap on benefits.

Yet Starmer’s willingness to embrace ‘mission based’ government has the potential to end England’s myopic focus on schools’ policy. Take well-being for example. One response would be to blame schools’ for the current crisis and to demand a rapid pivot in schools policy. But doing so would ignore evidence showing that the crucial determinants of young people’s well-being and mental health are the conditions children grow up in and other non-school factors. It is also important not to gloss over the fact that the UK’s downward trajectory is part of an international trend and that equally worrying trends in child well-being can be found across different UK nations, despite contrasting schools policy.

In my recent Institute for Public Policy Research report, ‘Balancing Act’, (written with my former think-tank, the Centre for Education and Youth), I propose a different approach. Schools and teachers are certainly part of the picture, but policy makers need to set their sights more widely. Ending the egregious injustices faced by England’s children depends on revitalising communities; investing in schools as hubs for enrichment and family support; and reigniting the previous Labour government’s pledge not just to reduce, but to end child poverty.

The million dollar question posed by Echazra’s graphs is what England’s PISA data would look like if policy over the last decade had looked beyond the school gates. That million dollar question should now be translated into a transformative mission that ensures all children and young people can enjoy thriving, safe and happy childhoods, full of enriching opportunities.

Loic Menzies is a Visiting Fellow at Sheffield Hallam Institute of Education and a Senior Research Associate in Jesus College Cambridge’s Intellectual Forum. He was previously Chief Executive of the ‘think and action-tank’ The Centre for Education and Youth. He is a former teacher, youth-worker and ITE tutor. You can find out more about his research on ResearchGate and follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Crerar, P., & Butler, P. (2023). Labour would keep two-child benefit cap, says Keir Starmer. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/jul/16/labour-keep-two-child-benefit-cap-says-keir-starmer#:~:text=Keir Starmer has confirmed that,for pushing families into poverty.
Department for Education. (2023). National behaviour survey: Findings from Academic Year 2021/22. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1161570/National_Behaviour_Survey_academic_year_2021_to_22_report.pdf
Dyson, J. (2023). Call for new focus from policymakers after child poverty spike. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/fears-child-poverty-spike-is-squeezing-pupils-results/
Hossain, M. (2023). Perceptions of key education actors towards PISA: the case of Scotland. Oxford Review of Education, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2023.2207817
Ingram, J., Stiff, J., Cadwallader, S., Lee, G., & Kayton, H. (2023). PISA 2022: National Report for England. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/656dc3321104cf0013fa742f/PISA_2022_England_National_Report.pdf
Jerrim, J. (2021). National tests and the wellbeing of primary school pupils: new evidence from the UK. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 28(5–6), 507–544.
Jerrim, J. (2023). Were PISA reading scores in Wales as bad as they first seemed? FFT Education Datalab. https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2023/12/were-pisa-reading-scores-in-wales-as-bad-as-they-first-seemed/
Labour Party. (2023). 5 Missions for a Better Britain: Bresaking Down the Barriers To Opportunity. https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Mission-breaking-down-barriers.pdf
Mazzucato, M. (2021). Mission economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism. Penguin UK.
Menzies, L. (2021). Child poverty is not unavoidable: Part II of the elephant in the room. CfEY. https://cfey.org/2021/03/child-poverty-is-not-unavoidable-part-ii-of-the-elephant-in-the-room/
Menzies, L., Yates, W., & Huband-Thompson, B. (2023). Balancing Act: Navigating the Tensions in our School System. https://www.ippr.org/files/2023-08/balancing-act-school-system-august-23.pdf
NHS Digital. (2022). Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2022. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england/2022-follow-up-to-the-2017-survey
Proctor, C. L., Linley, P. A., & Maltby, J. (2009). Youth Life Satisfaction: A Review of the Literature. Journal of Happiness Studies, 10(5), 583–630. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-008-9110-9
Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science & Medicine, 90, 24–31. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.026
The Children’s Society. (2022). The Good Childhood Report 2022. https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/information/professionals/resources/good-childhood-report-2022
UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight. (2023). Child Poverty in the Midst of Wealth: Innocenti Report Card 18. https://www.unicef.org/globalinsight/media/3291/file/UNICEF-Innocenti-Report-Card-18-Child-Poverty-Amidst-Wealth-2023.pdf



, , ,




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *