Hamish McRae: Real worry is how we fell so far behind the world

 

Share
Related Topics

So for the first time school exam results have slipped. Last week we had a fall in the numbers of students getting As and A*s at A-level and now we have a fall in the top grades at GCSE. But can that really be right, or are exams being marked more severely and the decline a reaction to many years of grade inflation?

Well, for anyone who thinks that what matters is not whether you can pass an exam but whether you have a good general education, there is fortunately an international study which enables us to cross-check UK student performance against of other countries. It is called the PISA study, which has nothing to do with the leaning tower but stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It was started by the OECD back in 1997, with the first results being for 2000. It runs at three year intervals so we now have results for 2003, 2006 and 2009.

It is huge: in the latest round it tested nearly half a million 15- to 16-year-olds from 74 countries. The aim of the tests is not to measure how well they can remember and reproduce what they have been taught but rather how well they can use their knowledge – how well they can function in three areas: reading, maths and science.

So how well do we do? I am afraid the news is not good. Back in 2000, when the main focus was on reading, the UK was ranked 7 out of 30 countries. We were excluded from the 2003 results because we submitted too few responses for our results to be accepted – I was told it was a genuine error, not a conspiracy. In 2006, when the focus was on science, we were down to 9th out of the 30. And in 2009, when the number of countries and regions was expanded to 74 to include the emerging economies, the UK was 16th in science, 25th in reading and a depressing 28th in maths.

Who was top? On all three categories it was the students in Shanghai. But even within the developed world we seem to be slipping and are way below Finland, which is the best in Europe, and Canada and New Zealand. We are now way below Germany in all areas, whereas nine years ago we were above them.

Now it may be that the early results flattered the UK, so we may not have lost as much ground as it would seem. But while we have some great schools, the UK education system as a whole is at best about the middle of the global pack – and at worst, slipping down it.

Of course exams are only exams. What matters most is not whether our A-level and GCSE performance is getting better or worse, but whether our young people can compete against their contemporaries in the rest of the world – including Shanghai.

Simon Kelner is away

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior IT Support / Projects Engineer

£26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Bench Joiner & Wood Machinist

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This busy local Joinery company...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Adviser

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you recently QCA Level 4 qu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Mininster: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence