For some the arrival of Christmas is signalled by a party or a tree. For me the arrival of 3 freshly minted tomes - PIRLS, TIMSS and TIMSS marked the beginning of the festive season. For these test results are truly a gift that can bring great pleasure and insight.
And these tests are not just of interest to those of us data fiends. As the Prime Minister outlined in his conference speech Britain is in a global race. Sink or swim. Do or decline.
There are many ways to compete - by having the world’s most competitive tax and regulatory regime, by having sweated every piece of infrastructure and every asset; by making sure that every penny of public money is value for money.
These are all great things. Yet nothing is more important than the skills base. A nation’s future prospects increasingly depend on the cognitive skills of its citizens. The link between student scores in international tests and real GDP growth rates per head is growing stronger; doubling between 1960 to1980 and 1980 to 2000.
As globalisation increases the pool of talent for top jobs, advances in technology and increasing mechanisation are squeezing out the mid-level jobs that require mid-level skills. The result is an hourglass economy, polarising jobs into two extremes - low-skilled work and senior managerial, professional jobs. The global return on skills - the premium earned by the highly educated - will only rise in the years to come. Over the next decade, the biggest increases in employment in this country are expected to be in higher-level occupations - at least 2 million jobs.
This should mark the opportunity for a great new wave of social mobility. Much as the increase in professional and managerial jobs in the 1950s an1960s propelled many into the middle class - so these new jobs should be providing a new ladder up and a new route in for thousands.
But are we producing the skilled workforce to take these places? According to the OECD this September, 25% of UK workers only have low skills compared to 14% in Germany and 11% in Canada.
In maths, which commands the highest premium at A level, degree and post -grad, we are trailing the field. England has the smallest proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds studying maths of any of the 24 countries measured. In Japan, 85% of students are studying the equivalent of A level maths - compared to just 12 per cent of young people in England.
And behind our showing in 2009 PISA of 25th for reading lies a very large distribution between the best and worst performers- a trend that’s much more pronounced in England than in other countries. In the past, and still today, this country has excelled at educating a small minority of its children to the very highest level. Our leading schools are already doing what the best systems in the world are doing and reaping the rewards.
This has to be our ambition.
Which is why the results released today from the international PIRLS and TIMSS studies are so important. Comparing ourselves to other countries is vital. It shows our strengths and our weaknesses. The pace of the race is such that we cannot afford to only learn from our own successes and failures - we must also learn from others and fast.
PIRLS and TIMSS, along with PISA, are the main methods for benchmarking our performance internationally. There are differences between the three studies; the most obvious being the age at which they test pupils: age 10 for PIRLS; ages 10 and 14 for TIMSS; and age 15 to16 for PISA.
They also test different things. TIMSS tests knowledge found in the curricula of participating countries. For example, in maths it tests number, algebra, geometry and data. TIMSS also assesses the cognitive skills of knowing, applying and reasoning.
PISA, on the other hand, assesses pupils on knowledge and skills they need to take a full and active part in modern society.
Today I will give an initial view of the PIRLS and TIMSS results. There is much devil in the detail and we will of course comment further when more analysis has been completed.
After discussing today’s results I will also talk more broadly about what international studies tell us about the curriculum and what lessons we are learning that we are putting into practice. And how we can learn even more.
This year’s PIRLS results show an improvement in the reading performance of 10-year-olds eclipsing the 2006 score and almost back to levels of 2001. The scaled score is 552, above the average of 500 and putting us at 11 out of 45. Our top performers compare with the best in the world.
More children are reading for fun, which, with its link with higher average achievement, is good news. Over half of our pupils said they read for half an hour or more every day out of school in this year’s PIRLS findings - a 4% increase since 2006. Fewer children reported that they “never or almost never” read for fun - a 15% drop since 2006.
But we have a long tail. 5% of our 10-year-olds don’t reach the lowest level of performance in PIRLS compared to one per cent in Hong Kong and 2% in the US. This is a long-term problem going back to 2001 and most probably long before. Our lowest performers are stuck at a very basic level, only able to find and reproduce information with explicit guidance.
The overall improvement in results suggest that wider use of phonics, starting with Jim Rose’s review in 2006 under the last government, pressed by my colleague Nick Gibb, has had an impact. Long-term research projects in the UK and abroad have confirmed that the early and effective use of systematic synthetic phonics can all but eliminate illiteracy.
We have built on this as a government introducing the phonics check for the first time this year - 235,000 6-year-olds were identified this year as needing additional help. Early identification of those struggling to obtain the basics is vital to bringing up overall performance and trying to eliminate much of the tail.
We are also introducing a new grammar, spelling and punctuation test next year and revising the English primary curriculum.
Maths performance in TIMSS has not improved since 2006 either at age 10 - where we are 9th out of 50 or at age 14, where we are 10th out of 42. We’re on a similar level to the US. In contrast, East Asian nations are extending their lead. Put together with PISA results, this shows a worrying lack of progress over time at school.
In maths, 10-year-olds performed below England’s average score in number and above England’s score in data. Number - essentially arithmetic, subtraction, addition multiplication and division - is where the high-performing countries generally do well. Fluency in arithmetic provides a solid basis for later study in areas from algebra to statistics.
Data, interpreting charts and diagrams, is a larger part of our curriculum earlier than it is in other countries and does not form as strong a basis for later study.
At 14, students perform relatively worse in algebra and geometry compared to the top performers, again the elements that should be the core of the curriculum at that age.
These findings are borne out by a study published by King’s College London in September, which concluded that pupils’ maths performance hadn’t risen since the 1970s and that current students’ understanding in algebra, ratio and fractions was relatively weak.
In our reforms to the curriculum we’re readjusting the balance to make sure the basics are secure first, in line with high-performing jurisdictions. At primary level, this will mean increased focus on arithmetic and taking it off data; requiring not only that pupils learn things like their tables earlier - at year 4 instead of year 6 - but also that they develop structured arithmetic, developing the foundations for algebra. We’re also removing calculators from primary tests by 2014 to ensure students build up their fluency.
At secondary there will be greater emphasis on algebra, geometry and more complex problem solving. Compared with other TIMSS participants, teaching time for mathematics in England was relatively high in Year 5, but relatively low in Year 9. TIMSS also found that we spend less time teaching maths at 14 - 116 hours a year compared to 166 hours in Chinese Taipei and 157 hours in the US.
TIMSS science results show a drop in performance. England’s mean score at age 10 has fallen from 542 to 529 between 2007 and 2011 and we’ve dropped from seventh out of 36 countries in the rankings to 15th out of 50. This represents not just a relative but an absolute fall in performance. The decision to drop the Key Stage 2 tests, in 2010, under the last government, appears to have had an impact.
There has been little change in our performance in science at 14 - we now come in at 9th out of 42 countries compared to 5th out of 45 in 2007.
We spend less time teaching science than many other countries. And half of our 10-year-olds were taught by teachers who had no specialist training in the subject compared to only a third of pupils in Chinese Taipei.
None of this is surprising when you consider the declining levels of science take-up at school, resulting in fewer teachers in the pipeline with a science background. This point demonstrates the knock-on effect poor curriculum breadth later in school can have on future teacher confidence in critical subjects like science and mathematics.
Which brings me to the chart and the broader point I wanted to make about our curriculum reforms. This chart is a visual representation of the relatively short lived nature of our core. All of the evidence suggests that high performing countries put core academic subjects at the centre of their curriculum for longer that we do. This means the study of a broad range of subjects including sciences, humanities and languages until 16. Many countries start a foreign language much earlier than we do. And in mathematics we are an outlier by not having a large number of students studying it from 16-18.
In recent years the trend in England has been towards fragmentation, to including even less in the core. The requirement for foreign languages was removed in 2004. There was a drop in numbers studying single sciences. Curriculum 2000 saw a disastrous drop off in the numbers of 16- to18-year-olds taking maths.
Meanwhile others were learning the lessons from international test results. That a strong core for all pupils provided the platform they needed for success. After doing badly in PISA in 2001 - the so-called PISA shock - Germany decided to increase the core of vocational and academic subjects that all pupils had to study, making maths and science subjects compulsory throughout all levels of schooling. A decade on, Germany had become one of PISA’s fastest-improvers - with particular success in closing the achievement gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds.
Similarly, after a damning set of PISA results in reading, Poland got more children studying core subjects. It improved its performance in PISA reading by more than 20 score points and reduced the proportion of lower-performing pupils from 23 per cent in 2000 to 15 per cent in 2009.
So what are we doing to learn from these examples?
Firstly we believe languages must be a central part of the school curriculum. Currently, one in 10 state primary schools offers no language lessons at all, according to most recent official figures.
It’s the reason we’re proposing to make foreign languages compulsory for children from the age of seven in all primary schools.
The response from parents and teachers has been hugely positive with 91 per cent of respondents in favour.
Secondly we are clear that the expectation should be a broad academic core until 16 - taking up 70% of curriculum as it does in most countries. We introduced the English Baccalaureate measure in 2010. In 2010, just under a quarter (22%) of GCSE pupils were entered for the EBacc subjects; this year, almost half of Year 10 pupils are studying these subjects.
The number of pupils taking GCSE triple science has gone up from just under 95,000 in 2010 to just over 130,000 in 2012. At A level, the numbers taking all three sciences have also increased.
In 2011, more than half of secondary schools reported that most of their pupils were studying a language in Year 10, up almost 15 per cent from 2010.
These changes will be cemented with the new Key Stage 4 qualifications from 2015 - English Baccalaureate Certificates in English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a foreign language. Of course, we expect pupils to do a wider ranger of subjects, including culturally-enriching activities such as music, art, drama and design.
Thirdly we are working to improve the take-up of maths to 18. Before the summer, we announced that maths will be compulsory for students up to the age of 19 if they haven’t achieved a good grade at GCSE.
But we also want to increase the uptake of maths for those who have got a GCSE in the subject. We are therefore looking at mid-level qualifications that will fill the gap between GCSE and A-Level. These mid-level qualifications are a feature of many countries who have a much higher uptake of maths.
That’s we have asked Professor Tim Gowers, one of our field medalists, to work with MEI to devise curriculum which will appeal to new students - especially those who currently choose not to continue maths beyond 16. It’s based on solving interesting problems, logic and estimation. If you want to find out more he has written an article, “Should Alice marry Bob?” in The Spectator. We are also looking at other options for new qualifications for this age group.
Throughout our reforms, we will be looking at the international data, as many other are. Australia, for example, has made a top five place in PISA a national educational goal.
Regions in countries such as the US and Canada are now choosing to enter international tests as stand-alone entities.
Florida is one such region. Many of their reforms echo ours - more accountability for schools and teachers, more choice for pupils and parents. Measures such as an A to F grading system for schools on core subjects; reading, writing, maths and science. A pay system for teachers based on performance.
Florida’s decision, and those of other states like Massachusetts, to benchmark themselves against the world’s best shows an inspiring level of ambition for their children, an unwavering determination to do better.
Forward-thinking education authorities in England, like Essex, are taking a similar approach and proposing to benchmark themselves internationally.
I’m hugely supportive of this - and can reveal today that we’re considering entering the 2015 PISA tests not just as England, but also as separate regions. This would mean more than twice as many schools as present taking part in the tests. So, the North East could see how it’s faring against the Netherlands. The South West able to potentially see how its schools are doing in relation to Singapore. And Boris will be able to compare London to New York or Berlin.
Of course, these reforms take time. The results from Germany’s reforms enacted in the early 2000s started emerging in PISA 2009. The Secretary of State gave the timeframe of a decade for reforms to take full effect. But the experience of Germany, Poland and many others shows just what can be achieved when a country learns the lessons of international evidence and reforms accordingly. We have already shown that our top performing schools and students can compete with the best in the world in reading. If we can improve the performance of the weakest and spread our efforts to maths and science, we are perfectly capable of moving from a middling position in the rankings to a world beater.