England’s Ranking in International League Tables


  • Politicians often refer to England’s position in various international league tables in order to justify claims that the country’s schools are ‘underperforming’. However, a report published by the Sutton Trust provides an important reminder that selectively quoting ‘evidence’ on the state of England’s schools and the standard of education they provide can be misleading and dangerous.1

  • The Sutton Trust report said that big variations in England’s education rankings in global league tables should be treated with caution and can obscure the true challenges facing schools. The report said that apparent differences in performance between different global tables, are the result of three key factors:
    • Different countries are included in the different tables;
    • League tables exaggerate the importance of raw test scores; and
    • Some countries do better on one survey than another, perhaps because the surveys test different aspects of literacy, numeracy and science.

  • Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “Whatever the average ranking of English education, we need to focus on reducing social segregation which is greater in England than almost all other OECD countries. We also need to improve teaching standards across the board and not focus so much on structures if we are to match those countries that consistently outperform the rest of the world – not just places like Hong Kong and Japan, but successful European education systems – and use their achievement as our benchmark.”

  • In the most recent OECD PISA tests taken in 2012 by 15 year olds, England performed around the average in mathematics and reading. In Science, England achieved a mean score that was significantly higher than the OECD average, with only ten out of a total of 64 countries performing at a level significantly higher than this.3 In relation to problem solving skills, English students were “significantly above average” in eleventh place amongst the OECD countries. England was the second highest ranked country in Europe after Finland in this area.2

  • Perhaps more important than mean tests scores is what PISA tells us about the strengths and weaknesses of countries’ education systems.4 PISA 2012 had some interesting things to say on schools systems, choice and equity, finding, for example that:
    • Comprehensive school systems produce more equitable results.
    • School systems that segregate students according to their performance tend to be those where students are also segregated by socio-economic status.
    • School choice and competition between schools create higher levels of socio-economic segregation in the school system.
    • Education systems do not benefit from competition between schools or from having a greater number of private schools.
    • Private schools do not perform better than state schools.
    • Schools that compete with other schools for students do not perform better than schools that do not compete.
    • Low income parents feel less able to exercise choice over their child’s school.
    • Countries that improved their performance in PISA invested in teachers by either having more robust requirements for gaining a teaching qualification, raising their salaries, or offering greater incentives to engage in professional development.

  • Crucially, PISA is unequivocal in saying that: “the quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

  • Education company Pearson also produces a global index called The Learning Curve which combines a number of international educational indicators including PISA. The 2014 report placed the United Kingdom sixth out of 40 countries, much higher than its PISA ranking and ahead of the USA, Germany and France.5 This made The UK the highest ranked country in Europe, immediately behind Finland.

  • Other global surveys include the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) taken by pupils aged ten and 14 in England and Northern Ireland in May and June 2011 and published in December 2012.

  • These showed that England was in the top 10 countries for both primary and secondary maths and was one of the most improved countries for maths between 1995-2011. In primary literacy tests, England was ranked eleventh out of 45 nations; and for science, England’s ranking was fifteenth out of 50 countries for primary science and ninth out of 42 countries for secondary science.

  • The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) says that the TIMSS data shows that England’s secondary schools deliver a world class science education and strike an important balance between high achievement and positive pupil attitudes in science, which many of the highest performing countries do not.

  • The NFER adds that Government proposals to reform GCSEs could derail that success instead of building on it. The report’s authors argue that it is critical, therefore, that in designing the criteria for the new GCSEs, policy makers do not rush to dismantle what is good, instead, reform should carefully be considered in light of our system’s strengths, using an evidence-based approach.

  • Another area of strength for UK education is in the early years. In 2012, the Starting Well Index was launched by the Economist Intelligence Unit.7 The index takes a global look at pre-school quality, availability and affordability in 45 OECD countries.

  • The UK came out near the top of the index, being ranked fourth out of 45 countries, behind Finland, Sweden and Norway but ahead of France, Germany and the Netherlands.


1Smithers, A., Confusion in the Ranks: how good are England’s schools (The Sutton Trust, 2013)

2Department for Education, Achievement of 15-Year-Olds in England: PISA 2012 National Report, December 2013 – revised April 2014.

3BBC News, “England's schools succeed in problem-solving test”, 1 April 2014, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26823184

4OECD, PISA 2012 Results: What Makes a School Successful? – Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV) (OECD Publishing, 2013)

5Economist Intelligence Unit, The Learning Curve: Education and Skills for Life (Pearson, 2014)

6Burdett, N., Weaving, H., Science education - have we overlooked what we are good at? (NFER, 2013)

7Economist Intelligence Unit, Starting well; Benchmarking early education across the world (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2012)

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