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Wales performs worst among UK nations in maths, reading and science

05 Dec 2023 5 minute read
School children during class at a primary school. Photo Danny Lawson PA Images

Emily Price

Welsh pupils are performing worst out of the UK nations in maths, reading and science, according to the latest PISA results announced today.

Within the UK’s four devolved education systems, England was the highest achiever in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment, which is based on tests taken by 15-year-olds from around the world.

Northern Ireland outperformed Scotland at maths and science and Scotland was better than Northern Ireland at reading.

Drop

The study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which assessed students’ skills and knowledge in maths, reading and science in 81 countries and regions, found “an unprecedented drop in performance” across many countries compared with 2018.

In the UK, in maths and reading, all gains observed in the previous PISA cycle in 2018 were reverted as the mean scores dropped from 502 to 489 (13 points) and from 504 to 494 (10 points), respectively.

The UK’s mean score in science in the latest Pisa study confirmed a decade-long decline in performance, dropping to 500 in 2022 from 505 in 2018.

Education Minister Jeremy Miles says plans are in place in Wales to regain pre-pandemic progress in key subject areas.

Of the 73 countries who took part in the assessment in 2018 and 2022, all but ten saw a decline in at least one area this year.

Wales is alongside countries such as the United States and Norway in reading, maths and science scores in 2022, following an improving picture in the 2019 PISA results.

The Welsh Government says it has committed to bring together education leaders across Wales to drive a system-wide response to support teaching and learning and drive up standards.

“Shock”

Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Education, Laura Anne Jones said the results are reflective of money being spent elsewhere on “pet projects” instead of education.

She said: “The results today are not a shock when we have a Labour Government which has so little regard for our children’s future that they actually cut the education budget this year. All governments should be giving pupils and teachers the tools to do their best and thrive.

“After 25 years of Labour running Welsh schools we have a widening attainment gap, funding being spent on the pet project of more politicians and sadly once again Wales languishing at the bottom of international league tables.

“The Labour Education Minister needs to get a grip of his department and give our young people the start in life they deserve. He can start by getting 5,000 more teachers back into our classrooms after years of declining numbers and the desperately needed money to support growing ALN numbers in mainstream education.”

Plaid Cymru’s education spokesperson, Heledd Fychan MS, said: The PISA results published today should be a wake up call for the Welsh Government.

“Too many young people in Wales are living in poverty, pupil absences are unacceptably high and many schools are facing a significant deficit in their budgets. Despite the hard work and dedication of an overstretched workforce, the pupil attainment gap is widening and we cannot ignore the link between poverty and today’s disappointing results.

“Every child, no matter their background should have an equal chance of succeeding in life.

“We need more than platitudes and excuses from the Minister for Education in response to these results. Wales had a pre Covid recruitment crisis in the education sector, the magnitude of which Ministers failed to grasp. Continuing and entrenching cuts to education will do nothing to put Wales on a path towards a turnaround in our PISA results.”

The study is usually carried out every three years but the latest round of assessment – which was due to take place in 2021 – was postponed by a year due to Covid-19.

The exceptional circumstances throughout this period included lockdowns and school closures in many countries, including the UK.

Around 690,000 students took the Pisa assessment in 2022 across the 81 countries and regions where they sat two-hour tests, each devoted to one subject.

Students also answered a background questionnaire which sought information about their attitudes, beliefs, their homes, and their school and learning experiences.

Education Minister Jeremy Miles said: “Before the pandemic, we saw a strong improvement in literacy and numeracy standards in Wales. Sadly, it is clear that the pandemic has derailed some of this improvement.

“We have already started on a path of driving up standards in reading and maths and we won’t let these results knock us off track.

“Last month we launched literacy and numeracy plans to help support learning and raise standards in these key areas. I have also published the first national report on the performance of our children in reading and numeracy and will do this annually to track recovery. “We supported our schools and learners through the pandemic, we will stand together and support them now.”

Since 2022, schools in Wales have started implementing major long-term reforms, with the new Curriculum for Wales being taught and rolled out sequentially to reach all learners in all schools from 2026/27.

Mr Miles added: “Our long-term education reforms have now started after years of planning and, as the OECD have said, improvement to education takes time.

“We have taken a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revolutionise the quality of education in Wales and I’m confident we will deliver huge benefits for our young people.”

Despite the lower results, the UK has climbed the rankings in maths to joint 12th, alongside Belgium, Denmark and Poland, up from joint 17th in 2018.

In reading, the UK has also risen to 13th, up from joint 14th in 2018, when the previous Pisa assessments were carried out.

In science, the UK was ranked joint 14th, alongside Slovenia – the same ranking achieved in 2018.

Singapore topped all three categories in the 2022 Pisa assessment.


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Frank
Frank
7 months ago

Why? Is the quality of teachers no longer good enough and not fit to educate our children. Test them!!! Let them sit examinations during inset days instead of drinking coffee as I am reliably told from within the profession. I was born in 1949 and remember my parents helping me with my reading, writing, maths, tables etc. Don’t they do that now? Teachers cannot be entirely blamed when parents don’t bother to help.

Llewz
Llewz
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

What is this test of yours going to achieve other than stress out an already stretched workforce? Many teachers (a huge percentage of supply teachers) quit during the pandemic – more would leave.

Frank
Frank
7 months ago
Reply to  Llewz

A proficiency test for teachers should not cause stress if in fact they are proficient enough. Why then is Wales performing “worst” of all the UK nations?

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

This is a deeply ignorant comment. Teachers have to qualify initially by meeting exacting standards. They are judged against these standards every year all throughout their careers.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Are we to endure yet another tranche of hostile and ignorant tirades against teachers? Perhaps contributors would do well to realise that a lack of respect towards the teaching profession seeps into the mindset of pupils and is very much a part of the problem.

Frank
Frank
7 months ago
Reply to  Annibendod

There is nothing “ignorant” about my comment. The facts here speak for themselves. If teachers are really competent in their profession why then are Welsh pupils performing so poorly and found to be “worst” of all in the UK. What’s the difference between Welsh and Scottish, Irish and English teachers who are performing better? Can they actually teach better than ours?

oatmaster
oatmaster
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

There are so many possible factors, you can’t just claim the teachers are worse. Or that the parents are worse. I got a bit confused by your initial post, wasn’t sure if you were saying it was the teachers or the parents.

hdavies15
hdavies15
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Frank I have some sympathy with your comment as the profession has to some extent contributed to a decline in standards. However 2 other factors come to mind while I look at these comments. First, teaching has been disrupted by repeated chopping and changing of the curricula in most subjects. There is an insatiable appetite for “modernising” among those in education but removed from the sharp end. All too often these changes just complicate matters rather than simplify or improve. Teachers’ inputs are noted say the administrators but anecdotal evidence often contradicts that. Secondly, too many parents pay little or… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Oh, very much to the contrary. Your comment speaks for itself. You speak of what you do not know or understand. You would do far better to open your ears.

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
7 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Yes! Blame and vilify the teachers! That won’t make them leave the sector AT ALL. But if it did, no wonder there’s MILLIONS of new talented teachers eager to be vilified in their place.
Also, blame parents “nowadays” that you don’t know and have never met. I wonder on what basis you raise your own saintly parents over ALL other parents.
None of these are suggested solutions. It’s just you having a go

Robert
Robert
7 months ago

This is an interesting article (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25299445) on the problems with PISA, multiple academics have expressed concerns over the accuracy.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Robert

It is massively gamed by various countries for political reasons. This produced a knee-jerk reaction in Wales and contributed towards the commisioning of the Donaldson report that led to the new curriculum – a true dog’s dinner if ever I saw one.

oatmaster
oatmaster
7 months ago

The OECD average has dropped too by a similar amount. Though the gap has widened, I don’t think I’d put it down to anything much more than noise in the data.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago

The problem in Wales is by and large Education Ministers with little idea of how to facilitate improvements in education and a failure to tackle poverty which is the no.1 cause of underachievement. The new curriculum is window dressing that has replaced a prior curriculum that for all its faults, at least allowed for consistency and comparison. Speaking as one, very exasperated, teacher of 15 yrs experience.

Malcolm Jones
Malcolm Jones
7 months ago

Why is Wales always the bottom of the league in everything. We have to get shot of this labour Government in Wales. Wake up you people of Wales think of your children and they’re future

oatmaster
oatmaster
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Jones

I totally agree about our children – they are future.

Nobby Tart
Nobby Tart
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Jones

In your opinion, what is the alternative?
Please show your workings.

Arthur Jones
7 months ago
Reply to  Malcolm Jones

The reason is politically correct politicians, lack of discipline in schools, Labour and Plaid spending another 200 million of public money this year to feed already overweight children and parents who have lived and continue to live off the public purse, spending their benefits on cigarettes and take aways. Childrens education is founded on their home life. Clearly the policies of the past 15 years are not working. The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

oatmaster
oatmaster
7 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Jones

You, sir, are either an AI generated reactionary or someone who hasn’t had one of their own thoughts for decades. Examine your thinking, how much of it have you come up with yourself?

Cat
Cat
7 months ago

PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.” from their website.

Perhaps the issue here is the “real life challenges” part???

Peter
Peter
7 months ago

Wales has persistently performed the worst in Europe over the past twenty years, Now we are not just the worst in Europe but across the world. It is no good for politicians to say that we must improve but to ask how did we get to this position in the first place? Results like this only prove one thing, either all Welsh kids are thicker than the rest of British school children, which I don’t believe, or the Welsh education system is not up to scratch. And it certainly won’t improve by dropping the standard of qualifications that are needed… Read more »

oatmaster
oatmaster
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter

All it proves are that the children in Wales that are selected to do the PISA tests score lower on the PISA tests than the children selected elsewhere in the uk. Anything else is extrapolation.

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