The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) now provides 20 years-worth of internationally comparable data on the mathematics and science performance of primary and secondary pupils worldwide, and the contexts in which they learn. England has participated in the study, which is now in its sixth four-yearly cycle, since its inception in 1995. The 2015 national report, which I and a team from the UCL Institute of Education authored for the Department of Education, can be found here: TIMSS 2015.
Over 8,800 pupils across 290 schools participated in England’s TIMSS assessments last spring. The year 5 and year 9 pupils that sat the assessments have experienced quite substantial curriculum and qualifications reforms during their time in school: the year 5 pupils sat new Key Stage 2 assessments this summer, while the year 9 pupils will sit the new GCSE English and maths assessments next summer.
England’s pupils performed relatively badly in maths in 1995, coming below the international mean in both years 5 and 9. This prompted Michael Barber to argue for the introduction of a National Numeracy Strategy for primary schools a few years later. Since then, performance in maths has improved significantly in both year groups, but particularly in year 5, where it is now significantly above the international mean. 2015 saw further small increases – compared to 2011 – in maths in both years 5 and 9, although neither increase was significant.
Performance in science was much better in 1995, and has remained significantly above the international mean in both year groups ever since. The worrying drop in year 5 science results in 2011 – which some attributed to the removal of universal science SATs for primary schools – appears to have been reversed between 2011 and 2015, with a significant improvement over the 20 year period. Performance in year 9 science has remained steady over the 20 years, with a small but not significant increase since 2011.
This picture of incremental improvement in maths, more volatile performance in year 5 science, and minimal change in year 9 science, leaves England firmly in the second highest-performing group of countries internationally in 2015. Meanwhile, the profile of countries above and below England has changed considerably over the two decades. While the five East Asian countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan) have generally occupied the highest performing group of countries in recent rounds of TIMSS, Singapore performed at a similar level to England in year 5 science in 1995, while Hong Kong performed significantly lower. Several countries (such as Kazakhstan, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic) have seen significant improvements in one or more subject in recent rounds, sometimes placing them in the highest performing group overall. Others (such as Australia, Canada and the Netherlands) that performed above or at the same level as England in 1995 have now dropped below us.
In many respects, England’s schools compare favourably with their international comparators. For example, according to their head teachers and/or teachers, schools here have fewer challenges with a lack of resources, with poor conditions, and with pupil behaviour than schools in most other countries, although there are other areas, such as teacher recruitment, staff challenges and job satisfaction for teachers, where they perform notably less well. England’s schools score highly for their focus on academic performance, and this appears to be a particularly important factor in student attainment.
Digging below the headline results, some further key findings for England in 2015 that are explored in more depth in the report include:
- boys are significantly ahead of girls again in year 5 maths (having previously narrowed this gap);
- whilst there has been an increase over the last 20 years in our pupils’ maths performance at both years 5 and 9, pupils here make relatively little progress in maths between years 5 and 9;
- the performance of our lowest achievers in England has improved in recent years, however far higher proportions of pupils in the highest performing countries achieve the Advanced and High benchmark scores than in England;
- England has wider gaps between our more and less advantaged pupils (determined according to the number of books pupils report having at home) than most other high performing countries;
- three curriculum areas where England performs poorly compared to our overall results are Chemistry and Algebra in year 9, and Geometric Shapes and Measures in year 5;
- pupil confidence in a subject appears to matter more to pupil performance than engaging teaching or whether or not pupils value it, so it is encouraging that pupils in England are relatively confident in their maths and science education; and
- English as an Additional Language appears to be a barrier in science, but not in maths.
So England has improved its performance in TIMSS over the past 20 years, if not perhaps by as much as we might have hoped given the relentless pace and scale of the reforms we have seen in that period.
Both TIMSS and PISA (which will be published on 6th December) provide important sources for understanding trends in own national performance as well as starting points for exploring how and why different countries improve or decline on these international assessments. TIMSS itself is not designed to answer such questions, but it does offer some tantalising clues that warrant further investigation. For example, the East Asian group of countries performs phenomenally well in the assessments, but these countries often score less well in other areas; for example, with fewer pupils valuing or liking learning maths and science than in many other parts of the world, and with high levels of challenge for teachers and low levels of teacher job satisfaction. It is also important to note the high levels of home tutoring in these countries, often involving more than 50% of pupils. As ever with international comparisons the importance of cultural and contextual differences cannot be ignored here but, as England adopts ever more of its curriculum content and maths pedagogy from East Asia, it will be important to understand how these wider factors interact to secure high performance.
In a time of global uncertainty and complex social and economic challenges, education becomes more important than ever: the need for social justice, international understanding and engaged democracies has never been greater and education can contribute in all three areas. International studies such as TIMSS can support informed debate and thereby help build high quality education systems around the world, but in order for this to happen we must go beyond simplistic policy borrowing to enable genuine opportunities for system learning.