News story

England's 15-year-olds' reading: over a year behind the world's best

Research reveals that GCSE pupils' reading compares unfavourably with pupils in Shanghai, Korea and Finland.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

GCSE pupils’ reading is more than a year behind the standard of their peers in Shanghai, Korea and Finland, research reveals today.

Fifteen-year-olds in England are also at least six months behind those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, according to the Department for Education’s (DfE) analysis of the OECD’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study.

To match the attainment of pupils from Shanghai in the reading assessment:

  • The proportion of England’s pupils achieving five A*-C grades (including English and maths) at the end of Key Stage 4 would need to increase by 22 percentage points.
  • For all maintained schools in England this would be an increase from 55 per cent of pupils achieving the threshold measure (in 2010) to 77 per cent.

The DfE’s PISA 2009 Study: How Big is the Gap? highlights how far England has slipped behind other nations in reading.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that the Government was taking urgent action to ensure England could match those countries which had closed the gap between the achievements of rich and poor pupils, while raising the attainment of all.

He said:

The gulf between our 15-year-olds’ reading abilities and those from other countries is stark - a gap that starts to open in the very first few years of a child’s education. The Government’s focus on raising standards of reading in the early years of primary school is key to closing that gap.

We are introducing a phonics check for six-year-olds, so those with reading problems can be identified before it is too late and can be given the extra help they need to catch up.

Having learnt to read, they can then go on to read to learn, and to read for pleasure. Almost 40 per cent of pupils in England never read for enjoyment. The difference in reading ability between these pupils and those who read for just half an hour a day is equivalent to a year’s schooling at age 15.

We are also bringing in a new spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary test for 11-year-olds and are re-introducing marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in relevant GCSE exams.

Nick Gibb added:

Our writers - Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, George Orwell and Ian McEwan - are the finest in the world. It is time we are also among the best readers in the world.

The DfE analysis also calculates the reading gap in terms of GCSE grades. It puts Shanghai’s 15-year-olds the equivalent of 11 GCSE grades ahead of our pupils, while Korea’s are eight grades better off. Those in Finland and Hong Kong are seven grades ahead.

This means that while a typical pupil at the end of Key Stage 4 in England achieves eight C grades in their best eight GCSEs or equivalent exams, one in Shanghai would score three As and five Bs in their best eight GCSEs - a total of 11 grades better off.

Attainment gap between England and the countries performing significantly better than England in the PISA 2009 reading assessment expressed using various measures of attainment.

  Reading strand
  Difference in pupil attainment… 
Comparison Country1 …in GCSE grades …in % pupils achieving 5 A*-C (inc. English and Maths) …in years' progress
Shanghai – China 11 22% 1.5
Korea 8 16% 1.1
Finland 7 16% 1
Hong Kong - China 7 15% 0.9
Singapore 6 13% 0.7
Canada 5 13% 0.7
New Zealand 5 13% 0.7
Japan 5 11% 0.6
Australia 4 9% 0.5
Netherlands 3 6% 0.3
Belgium 2 6% 0.3
Norway 2 3% 0.2
Iceland 1 3% 0.1

Source: OECD, PISA 2009 Database

The OECD PISA studies compare the abilities of pupils across a number of countries. The studies in 2000, 2003 and 2006 focused on reading, maths and science respectively.

The 2009 study returned to reading as the main focus but also looked at maths and science. In the former, 20 countries scored significantly higher than England, with Shanghai top. England was also out-scored by Estonia, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia. In science, Shanghai again leads the rankings. Estonia and Australia are among the nine other countries significantly ahead of England’s 15-year-olds.

Across all three strands, England has tumbled down the international tables in the last nine years - from 7th to 25th in reading; 8th to 28th in maths; and 4th to 16th in science.

The research shows that high-performing nations have the following in common. They:

  • recruit and develop excellent teachers
  • allow greater freedoms for schools and leaders
  • have clear standards, high expectations, and external exams
  • have effective identification and sharing of best practice
  • have clear, transparent and proportionate assessment and accountability systems.

Notes to editors

  1. The DfE analysis of the OECD PISA 2009 study can be found in the publications section of our website.

  2. The full OECD PISA 2009 study, including a UK note, can be found on the OECD website.

  3. OECD PISA has taken place every three years since 2000. It assesses the knowledge and skills of pupils coming towards the end of compulsory schooling (Year 11 equivalent) in reading, mathematics and science, using specially developed tests. Participating pupils also complete a background questionnaire which yields data about their socio-economic background, study habits and attitudes to reading, while headteachers complete a questionnaire about their schools.

  4. PISA 2009 focused on reading. The study was carried out in England on behalf of the Department by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). A total of 4,081 pupils across 165 schools in England participated, including independent schools and academies in proportion to their numbers nationally.

  5. PISA splits China into different jurisdictions - Shanghai-China and Hong Kong-China.

DfE enquiries

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General enquiries - for members of the public 0370 000 2288


Published 26 April 2012