PISA beyond the rankings: pupils’ aspirations and future plans

Nikki Shure

Once we move beyond the performance rankings produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) PISA test results, the data can reveal interesting comparisons of 15-year-olds across the globe along different dimensions. This includes pupils’ post-secondary school plans and aspirations. As part of the PISA tests, pupils fill out a background questionnaire, stating whether or not they expect to complete university and the job they expect to have at age 30. Since science was the focus of PISA 2015, the OECD explicitly looks at career aspirations in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field.

Additionally, each country has the option to introduce a country-specific block of questions. In 2015, England, Wales and Northern Ireland pursued this option and asked participants some more specific questions about their plans for higher education. In this post, I focus on what PISA can tell us about young people’s aspirations and plans for life after secondary school and how this varies across countries.

More young people in England and Northern Ireland aspire to a career in science than their peers across the OECD

Nearly a third of all 15-year-olds across the UK aspire to a career in science with 31 per cent in Northern Ireland and 28 per cent in England. This is compared to 24 per cent of pupils in OECD countries and higher than countries such as Germany (15 per cent) and Japan (18 per cent), which are thought of as technologically very advanced countries with large STEM industries. Of course, this does not mean that all of these pupils will go on to study or work in STEM fields, but highlights a strength in England and Northern Ireland of fostering science aspirations.

Overall science career aspirations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland do not differ for boys and girls

Boys are no more likely to aspire to a career in a STEM field than girls in the UK, This is not the case in some high-performing countries such as Taiwan, where boys are 10 percentage points more likely to express interest in a science related career than girls (26 versus 16 per cent). A similar sized gender gap of eight percentage points exists in Singapore (32 per cent of boys versus 24 per cent of girls), which is also the highest performing country on PISA 2015 in science.

In high performing Western countries, there tends to be no gender gap or a small gender gap in favour of girls. For example, there is a five percentage point difference in science aspirations in Canada, but this is in the favour of girls (31 per cent of boys versus 37 per cent of girls).

But girls are more interested in health careers and boys in engineering

Once we break down STEM aspirations into four sub-categories, evidence of gender patterns arises. Girls in England are three times as likely to aspire to a career as a ‘health professional’ than boys (21 per cent versus seven per cent) and boys are more than twice as likely to aspire to a career as a ‘scientist/engineer’ than girls (16 versus 6 per cent).

This is despite boys and girls in the England having broadly equal skills across the PISA ‘physical’ and ‘living’ scientific system domains.

Boys are also more likely to have ‘elite’ aspirations for university than girls in England, even though girls are more likely to say they will complete university

As part of the country-specific block of questions, pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were asked to list three universities to which they plan to apply (only if they stated they were planning to apply to university). The majority of pupils in England who answered this question aspire to attend a Russell Group university, although boys were more likely than girls to list a Russell Group university as their top choice.

Figure 1 Percentage of pupils in England planning to apply to an ‘elite’ university


Notes: Thin line through centre of each bar refers to the estimated 95 per cent confidence interval.

The same is true when it comes to ‘Oxbridge’. Boys were nearly 10 percentage points more likely than girls to list either Oxford or Cambridge as their first choice. This is a stark result when we consider that girls were 10 percentage points more likely to say they will complete university than boys (47 per cent versus 37 per cent). This is consistent with the 2013/14 Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, where there is a nine percentage point difference in university enrolment between boys (42 per cent) and girls (51 per cent) and raises the question of why girls are not ‘leaning in’ when it comes to elite university aspirations.

Overall these results show that there is a strong interest in careers in STEM in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Gender differences in aspirations arise in terms of what kind of STEM career to pursue and whether or not to apply to an ‘elite’ university. We still do not fully understand when and why these gender differences arise and more research is needed in this area. For more details on these findings, see the PISA 2015 national reports for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Posted in International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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