Institute of Education


England's education system needs significant improvement to rival the world's best, reveals study

23 August 2017

School boy taking test

A new report co-authored by the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) uses the latest international PISA data to identify what GCSEs under the new grading system mean in terms of a world-class education system.

Co-authored by Professor John Jerrim, in partnership with the Education Policy Institute, the report identifies a 'world-class standard' (based on the performance of the highest attaining countries) and considers the performance of pupils in England in relation to this standard.

To match the highest performing countries in the world, Professor Jerrim finds that pupils in England must, on average, achieve a 'strong pass' in maths and English. This is a grade 5 under the new GCSE grading system (which will see pupils achieving grades on a 9-1 scale) and the equivalent of a high C or low B grade under the old system.

Commenting on this pass level, Professor Jerrim said:

"The key message is that the average grade needs to be around grade 5 if England's education system is ever going to be considered world class. This should therefore become the standard which we expect our young people to meet.

"This then has important implications for how we interpret GCSE results when they are released tomorrow. Only grade 5 should be treated as the pass mark; grade 4 and below should be treated as a fail. From now on, universities, employers, schools and teachers should be setting grade 5 as the standard they expect young people to meet."

In 2016, less than 40 per cent of pupils in state-funded schools in England achieved this world-class standard. To equal the highest performers, England would need to increase this figure by a quarter - or an additional 60,000 pupils.

The report reveals that England faces an immense challenge in maths if it wishes to be on a par with the highest performing countries, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Japan. To match their average performance, under the new GCSE grading system, the average maths grade in England would need to increase by around two thirds per student. The number of top performing pupils (those securing an A*- B grade) would need to increase by over a third.

Reaching the world-class standard for English would require smaller, yet still significant, improvements in pupils' performance at GCSE level. Those performing at the lower end of the scale (pupils failing to secure a C grade) would need to decease by over a quarter.

The number of top attaining pupils in science (those achieving a 'strong pass' or higher) needs to increase by just over an eighth to catch up with the highest performing countries.

The report also looks at how different parts of the country are performing, as well as examining how far behind Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are in relation to the new standard.

It finds that almost all local authorities in England (136 of 150) fail to get half of their pupils achieving on average a 'strong pass', and that areas such as the Isle of Wight, Knowsley, Blackpool and Nottingham are significantly behind.

When looking at the UK's performance overall, the researchers find that Wales' performance in maths is significantly lower than England's - just 38 per of cent pupils are high attainers, achieving the equivalent of an A*- B GCSE grade. This compares with Scotland (44 per cent) and Northern Ireland (43 per cent). To keep pace with the world's best in maths, Wales would need to improve the number of top performing pupils it has by over a half. Scotland and Northern Ireland would each need to increase theirs by over a third.

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