English education lags behind other countries

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As GCSE students receive their results, the Education Policy Institute warns English pupils are falling behind on maths and language skills

English pupils' attainment in maths and reading lags behind other countries, according to an Education Policy Institute (EPI) report.

English education: World class? used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to establish England's ranking when compared to other countries. While English students have an average PISA score of 493 for mathematics, Singapore (564), Hong Kong (548) and Macau (544) rank higher. When it comes to studies in the country's first language, Singapore (535), Hong Kong (527) and Canada (527) scored the highest, with England achieving 500.

The report found that English pupils must, on average, achieve a ‘strong pass’ in maths and English in their GCSEs to match the highest-performing countries in the world such as Singapore and Hong Kong. This is a grade 5 under the new GCSE grading system (the equivalent of a high C or low B under the old system).

For England to match the world’s best, the EPI estimates that half of all pupils would need to achieve 50 points or higher across eight key subjects in their GCSEs. Only 39.5% of pupils achieved 50 points or more in these eight subjects in 2016. Scotland and Northern Ireland would each need to improve the proportion of high-attaining pupils in maths by more than a third, while Wales would need to improve further still, by more than half.

Natalie Perera, the EPI's executive director and the report's co-author, called on the government to take action. “England and other UK nations are defined by disproportionate numbers of low-attaining pupils,” she said. “If any meaningful progress is to be made in catching up with the highest-performing nations, a concerted effort must be made by policymakers to significantly raise the educational outcomes of this group.”

However, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has questioned whether a focus on academic qualifications fits the UK’s skills requirements.

Petra Wilton, CMI’s director of strategy and external affairs, said educators need to be doing more to teach young people essential skills for the workplace. “The EPI’s focus on low academic attainment is half of the picture; we need policymakers to also look at the disproportionate number of young people leaving education with little or no work-ready skills,” she said.

“One way of tackling this would be to implement a new school to work syllabus in schools and colleges. This would help to develop employability, team leadership and management skills – areas in which UK graduates are also lacking, according to employers,” she added. “Young people also need to be made more aware of alternative higher education options, such as degree apprenticeships, which can provide a more affordable transition from education to professional careers.”

CIPD research has also found that nearly half of HR professionals (48%) say their organisation is not aware that GCSE grading will be changing to a different format as of this year. The survey of nearly 700 HR professionals found that 41% were not aware of the changes, and 10% were unsure.

Lizzie Crowley, skills adviser at the CIPD, said HR needs to understand these changes. "As the new system is phased in it’s crucial that employers get up to speed as quickly as possible, particularly if they recruit people directly from school, offer internships, work experience places or apprenticeships," she said.

This year, GCSE passes have dropped slightly across the range of subjects. Overall in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, passes (grades C/4 and above) dropped 0.6 percentage points to 66.3%.

In England, the English literature pass-rate fell 2.5 percentage points to 72%, but in maths it rose from 61.5% to 68.9%. Both are new, tougher exams.

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