The latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have found that students in the UK are less satisfied than their peers in many other countries. Co-ordinated and led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA assesses the knowledge and life skills of pupils aged 15. Pupils are assessed on their competence to address real-life challenges involving reading, mathematics and science, and also complete an attitudinal survey on wellbeing.

53 per cent of students in the UK said they were satisfied with their life, whereas the average for OECD countries was 67 per cent. Furthermore, more than a quarter of students reported being bullied at least a few times a month – which was slightly higher than the OECD average of 22.7 per cent. In England, 66 per cent of pupils reported that they sometimes or always feel worried, compared to an OECD average of 50 per cent, and just over half (53 per cent) of pupils reported sometimes or always feeling miserable. The figure across the OECD was 39 per cent. Across the UK as a whole, almost one in 10 (8.7 per cent) of students said they ‘always’ felt sad, compared to 6.5 per cent on average for the OECD.

In the subject-based element of the assessments, the UK moved up to 14th in reading, from 22nd in the previous tests three years ago. In science it moved from 15th to 14th, and in maths from 27th to 18th. However, according to analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), the only statistically significant improvement in performance came in maths, where the average point score increased from 493 in 2015, to 504 in 2018. In reading and science underlying scores remained broadly similar despite the UK moving up the ranking compared to other countries. China was the top performing country in all three subjects, followed in each case by Singapore.

Commenting on the PISA findings, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘It is clear that many young people feel under great pressure in a society in which the stakes often seem very high to them in terms of achieving their goals. We must do more to understand the complex factors which affect wellbeing and ensure schools and colleges are sufficiently funded to be able to provide appropriate pastoral support.’

Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the NASUWT union also remarked on what she described as the ‘striking finding’ regarding teenagers’ life satisfaction, saying: ‘Fear of failure and the enormous pressure put on children and young people from the high-stakes accountability nature of testing in schools in the UK may be an important factor in this finding.’

She also suggested that it was not appropriate to use the Pisa assessments to judge the overall quality of a country’s education system: ‘While evidence from international assessments such as PISA is useful as a tool for examining education policy and practice, this is very different from using the evidence to say that an education system is better or worse than other systems. It is not appropriate to use....the PISA results to rank countries or jurisdictions’ she said.

Full PISA results:

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March 30, 2020 (PDF 1.22 MB)

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