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UK teenagers trail leading countries in science, maths and reading tests

The UK's teenagers are continuing to lag behind their peers in countries such as Singapore, Japan and tiny European nations when it comes to science, maths and reading, a major international report has found.

It reveals that the UK has made little progress in these core areas in three years.

The study, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), assesses how students could use their knowledge and skills in real life, rather than just being able to repeat facts and figures parrot-fashion.

Although the UK performs above the OECD average in science and reading, it is more mediocre when it comes to maths.

It trails the likes of Estonia, Finland and Norway, according to the latest triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which covers 72 countries and economies.

Overall, the UK came 15th for science, up from 21st, while it fell to 27th for maths, a drop of one place, and 22nd in reading, up from 23rd.

England was the best performing UK nation, while Wales had the lowest results.

The report, across nearly 1,000 pages and two volumes, reveals that east Asian nations continue to dominate. Singapore was top in all subjects, overtaking Shanghai which was the highest placed in the 2012 results.

This year, Shanghai forms part of a wider entry covering four Chinese provinces.

The study involved just over half a million 15-year-olds across the globe, with the two-hour tests including some multiple-choice answers.

In science, the UK's teenagers scored 509 points - down from 514, but above the OECD average of 493. It put the country on a par with the likes of Germany and the Netherlands, slightly above Switzerland, Ireland and Belgium, but below New Zealand, Slovenia and Australia.

It means the country continues to trail leading nations including Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei and Finland.

In reading, the UK's teenagers scored 498 points - down from 499, but above the OECD average of 493. The results put the country level with Portugal, slightly above Chinese Taipei and the US, but below France and Belgium.

It means the country continues to trail leading nations including Singapore (with 535), as well as Hong Kong and Canada. Finland, in fourth, scored 526, one place above Ireland (521).

In maths, the UK's teenagers scored 492 points - down from 494, and around the OECD average of 490. It put the country on a par with the likes of the Czech Republic and Portugal.

Singapore has a score of 564, ahead of Hong Kong and Macao.

OECD analysis found the average science, maths and reading performance of 15-year-olds in the UK had remained stable since 2006.

Three years ago, when Pisa 2012 results were published, ministers in England argued that the nation was "stagnating" and introduced a series of reforms designed to overhaul the education system. The impact of these has yet to be seen in terms of international standings.

The latest results may also have implications for the current Government's plans to allow grammar school expansion in England,

OECD education and skills director Andreas Schleicher said increasing selection of any sort will have an impact on social selection.

"We see very clearly across Pisa - the more academically selective you want to be or are, the more socially selective you inevitably become," he said. "Academic inclusion and social inclusion are linked very closely. The pattern on that is very clear.

"Currently, England is one of the least selective systems. There is more streaming going on in England today without the grammar schools than in any other country.

"The big story is hidden behind the difference in the performance of individual students, between the individual teachers and the individual classes - that's where the performance gap really lies.

"Increasing stratification of any sort will more likely drive the impact of social selection. But don't forget beyond the surface of what happens in classes."

Schools minister Nick Gibb said: "Today's findings provide a useful insight as we consider how to harness the expertise of selective schools in this country in the future.

"We know that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils, which is why we want more pupils from lower income backgrounds to benefit from that."

The Pisa tests are not without their criticisms - with some claiming the figures are less reliable for comparison as they do not take data from all schools, with most countries offering about 5% of their eligible 15-year-olds for testing.

Announcing a £12.1 million investment until 2019 to support the teaching of science in schools, Mr Gibb said: "We are determined to give all young people the world-class education they need to fulfil their potential. It is encouraging to see so many young people setting their ambitions high, as we know science is valued by employers and is linked to higher earnings."

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: "After six years of turmoil in our schools, we have not made the progress we were promised by the Tories.

"We were told that the constant chopping and changing would all be worth it to see our international standing in education shoot up the tables.

"But what the Tories have delivered instead is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, chaos in the exam system, class sizes rising and schools facing the biggest budget cuts in decades."

Professor Stephen Gorard, of Durham University, said: " The results for OECD countries with explicit early selection of students, such as Germany and Austria, are not among the very highest performers. They do not have better results than England with its mostly non-selective system and they tend to have worse gaps between highest and lowest attainers.

"Note also that the results for Northern Ireland, which remains a largely selective system, are lower than for England. And the highest attainers in Northern Ireland have lower average scores than those in England.

"These things might not mean much due to the necessarily imperfect nature of the tests and achieved samples, but it is absolutely clear that Pisa offers no evidence that selective systems are better in any respect."

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