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

  • @TheIndyBusiness

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