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The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2015 National Report for England

I co-authored the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2015 national report for England with colleagues at the UCL Institute of Education (Toby Greany, Iain Barnes, Nicola Pensiero and Christina Swenson).

The full report can be accessed through the following link

In what follows is a summary authored by Toby Greany for the UCL IOE blog


The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) now provides 20 years-worth of internationally comparable data on the mathematics and science performance of primary and secondary pupils worldwide, and the contexts in which they learn. England has participated in the study, which is now in its sixth four-yearly cycle, since its inception in 1995.  The 2015 national report, which I and a team from the UCL Institute of Education authored for the Department of Education, can be found here: TIMSS 2015.

Over 8,800 pupils across 290 schools participated in England’s TIMSS assessments last spring. The year 5 and year 9 pupils that sat the assessments have experienced quite substantial curriculum and qualifications reforms during their time in school: the year 5 pupils sat new Key Stage 2 assessments this summer, while the year 9 pupils will sit the new GCSE English and maths assessments next summer.

England’s pupils performed relatively badly in maths in 1995, coming below the international mean in both years 5 and 9. This prompted Michael Barber to argue for the introduction of a National Numeracy Strategy for primary schools a few years later.  Since then, performance in maths has improved significantly in both year groups, but particularly in year 5, where it is now significantly above the international mean.  2015 saw further small increases – compared to 2011 – in maths in both years 5 and 9, although neither increase was significant.

Performance in science was much better in 1995, and has remained significantly above the international mean in both year groups ever since. The worrying drop in year 5 science results in 2011 – which some attributed to the removal of universal science SATs for primary schools – appears to have been reversed between 2011 and 2015, with a significant improvement over the 20 year period. Performance in year 9 science has remained steady over the 20 years, with a small but not significant increase since 2011.

This picture of incremental improvement in maths, more volatile performance in year 5 science, and minimal change in year 9 science, leaves England firmly in the second highest-performing group of countries internationally in 2015. Meanwhile, the profile of countries above and below England has changed considerably over the two decades.  While the five East Asian countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan) have generally occupied the highest performing group of countries in recent rounds of TIMSS, Singapore performed at a similar level to England in year 5 science in 1995, while Hong Kong performed significantly lower. Several countries (such as Kazakhstan, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic) have seen significant improvements in one or more subject in recent rounds, sometimes placing them in the highest performing group overall.  Others (such as Australia, Canada and the Netherlands) that performed above or at the same level as England in 1995 have now dropped below us.

In many respects, England’s schools compare favourably with their international comparators. For example, according to their head teachers and/or teachers, schools here have fewer challenges with a lack of resources, with poor conditions, and with pupil behaviour than schools in most other countries, although there are other areas, such as teacher recruitment, staff challenges and job satisfaction for teachers, where they perform notably less well.  England’s schools score highly for their focus on academic performance, and this appears to be a particularly important factor in student attainment.

Digging below the headline results, some further key findings for England in 2015 that are explored in more depth in the report include:

  • boys are significantly ahead of girls again in year 5 maths (having previously narrowed this gap);
  • whilst there has been an increase over the last 20 years in our pupils’ maths performance at both years 5 and 9, pupils here make relatively little progress in maths between years 5 and 9;
  • the performance of our lowest achievers in England has improved in recent years, however far higher proportions of pupils in the highest performing countries achieve the Advanced and High benchmark scores than in England;
  • England has wider gaps between our more and less advantaged pupils (determined according to the number of books pupils report having at home) than most other high performing countries;
  • three curriculum areas where England performs poorly compared to our overall results are Chemistry and Algebra in year 9, and Geometric Shapes and Measures in year 5;
  • pupil confidence in a subject appears to matter more to pupil performance than engaging teaching or whether or not pupils value it, so it is encouraging that pupils in England are relatively confident in their maths and science education; and
  • English as an Additional Language appears to be a barrier in science, but not in maths.

So England has improved its performance in TIMSS over the past 20 years, if not perhaps by as much as we might have hoped given the relentless pace and scale of the reforms we have seen in that period.

Both TIMSS and PISA (which will be published on 6th December) provide important sources for understanding trends in own national performance as well as starting points for exploring how and why different countries improve or decline on these international assessments.  TIMSS itself is not designed to answer such questions, but it does offer some tantalising clues that warrant further investigation.  For example, the East Asian group of countries performs phenomenally well in the assessments, but these countries often score less well in other areas; for example, with fewer pupils valuing or liking learning maths and science than in many other parts of the world, and with high levels of challenge for teachers and low levels of teacher job satisfaction.  It is also important to note the high levels of home tutoring in these countries, often involving more than 50% of pupils.  As ever with international comparisons the importance of cultural and contextual differences cannot be ignored here but, as England adopts ever more of its curriculum content and maths pedagogy from East Asia, it will be important to understand how these wider factors interact to secure high performance.

In a time of global uncertainty and complex social and economic challenges, education becomes more important than ever: the need for social justice, international understanding and engaged democracies has never been greater and education can contribute in all three areas. International studies such as TIMSS can support informed debate and thereby help build high quality education systems around the world, but in order for this to happen we must go beyond simplistic policy borrowing to enable genuine opportunities for system learning.

Measuring Job Quality.

Extract from LLAKES newsletter n4.

What do we mean by “job quality”, and how can we design indices to measure it? These are the central questions in another LLAKES European research project being led by Francis Green.

The project follows a call from the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, an agency of the European Union based in Dublin, to carry out analyses of its 5th European Working Conditions Survey, which was completed in 34 countries during 2010. Working together with LLAKES researcher, Tarek Mostafa, Francis’s bid won the contract to devise job quality indices from the data, and to use the indices to describe the distribution and growth of job quality in Europe.

From the outset, the idea of job quality needed to be defined, the concept was focused squarely on objective features of the job, rather than on personal characteristics of the worker. Indices for wages, intrinsic work quality, employment quality (security and prospects), and work-life balance features were devised. Rather than focusing just on wages, which economists generally favoured, or combining them artificially to form a single index, it was decided to analyse the four indices separately. Tarek and Francis have since been busy analysing how these aspects of jobs vary across socioeconomic groups, and between European countries. We know that wages were increasing steadily in many countries, prior to the great recession of 2008, and that earnings had become much more unequal, including in Britain. Of particular interest is what’s been happening to the non-wage aspects of job quality over time. Is it getting any better? If so, in what dimensions? Is it becoming more unequally distributed across the population? Up to now very little has been known about these matters. Francis presented some initial findings on these issues to a conference on job quality in early November at Cornell University, New York State, organised by the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, in a paper entitled “Is job quality becoming more unequal?” In US conferences one is sometimes urged to make sure to include his “elevator” answer in his presentation, (i.e. the summary you would give to someone important if you found yourself describing your paper’s argument during a ride in the lift). In this case, Francis’ elevator statement required less than one floor: “not in Europe”. It was found that work quality, work intensity and work-life balance features were all becoming less, not more, unequal between 1995 and 2010; while environmental security (i.e. absence of physical and ergonomic hazards) was pretty stable.

Euro Zone Fears Still High Despite Recent Debt Plan

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced Thursday that Europe is closer to solving the euro zone crises after an agreement has been reached in Brussels. On the other hand, numerous economists, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, are still skeptical about how effective such an agreement might be. In Krugman’s words, “The bitter truth is that it’s looking more and more as if the euro system is doomed. And the even more bitter truth is that given the way that system has been performing, Europe might be better off if it collapses sooner rather than later.”

Today, the main threat is not necessarily Greece, but the failure of the economies of Italy and Spain. Italy is the third largest economy of the euro zone, and any run on its banks spells disaster for the rest of the European economies. Given that the reaction to the Greek crisis was weak and relatively late, one can imagine what a broader crisis means. France is already struggling with its debt and it is almost impossible for it to bail out its southern neighbors. Germany has been reluctant since the beginning of the crisis to provide help to the failing economies.

But the bailouts that Germany is required to fund are the price that it has to pay in order to save the euro. This comes despite the unpopularity of these bailouts with German voters and the well-founded fears concerning the situation of some of the essentially broken European economies. Even more ironically, European leaders called upon the U.S. and China to support the crisis deal.

Of course, one should not forget the exceedingly productive role that the UK might play, which consists of looking half-suspiciously and half-mockingly upon what the rest of Europe is doing.

The main ailment of the EU is the existence of a monetary union without a fiscal one. When the euro was created, investors and policymakers wrongly believed that the Greek debt will be as safe as the German debt. This led to a boom in lending to Europe’s peripheral economies. But when the crisis started in the U.S. and spread towards the EU, the lending frenzy stopped, economic activity and tax revenues declined, debt spiraled, and the confidence fairy deserted this part of the world.

The solution to this problem would have been easy and straightforward if Europe were a fiscal union. In this case, states with a budgetary surplus would fund those with a deficit. However, two obstacles stand in the way of such a union. First, Europe is not a single country and it does not have the coherence of, say, America and the states which compose the U.S. union. Secondly, countries like Greece have been fiscally profligate even in the good days. Although some countries with limited debt such as Spain and countries with high debt but limited deficits such as Italy might emerge from the crisis, Greece will still pose a threat to the rest of Europe.

So far, the response of the European Commission was to impose fiscal austerity on its member states while providing bailouts to debtor countries until the private sector starts lending again. However, too much austerity might have undesirable effects. If public sector spending is being slashed in debtor countries (e.g. Greece) and the private sector is not lending, then how are jobs and growth supposed to be created? The answer would be through exports to creditor countries (e.g. Germany, France, etc.) as Krugman notes. But if these creditor countries are also imposing austerity and consumers are unwilling to buy these exports, then Europe as a whole will be driven back into recession. Of course, public spending as opposed to austerity also has limits defined by how much debt a country can accumulate without suffering from a loss of confidence.

After the extensive talks in Brussels, European leaders agreed to the following: Banks holding Greek debt would accept a 50% loss, a mechanism to boost the euro zone’s main bailout fund to about 1 trillion euros ($1.4tn), and banks must also raise more capital to protect them against losses resulting from any future government defaults.

Now, let’s wait and see if the confidence gods and fairies will smile upon Europe.

Preschool Education and Care: a Win-Win Policy

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green suggests that preschool education and care has a positive effect on female employment and on educational performance at the age of 15, but it does not help close the gap between poorer students and their peers.

Debates about policy frequently involve identifying social and economic trade-offs. A policy which is designed to boost economic competitiveness may have negative social consequences or, conversely, policies designed to enhance social cohesion may come at a high economic cost. The tensions between economic and social goals seem particularly evident in times of economic austerity. However, social scientists occasionally identify policies which they claim would have clear benefits, both on the economic and social side. Pre-primary education and care (PSEC) is one such policy area.

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green showed clearly that PSEC opens the doors of employment for women. Affordable and accessible pre-school provision frees up mothers of young children to undertake paid work and is thus likely to increase the employment rates of women in general. Raising rates of employment makes an important contribution to raising GDP per capita and improving living standards. At the same time participation in PSEC is held to improve the cognitive abilities of young children. These gains would come at little net costs since they are off-set by the increases in productivity and in tax revenues which will accrue.

We used two datasets: The first is a macro dataset that covers Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA from 1980 to 2008. We included a large number of determinants of employment. These determinants are: PSEC, expenditure on unemployment (welfare), rigidity of employment, union coverage, coordinated wage bargaining, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate, the rate of house ownership, and prison population. We also included the following variables: The degree of centralization of wage coordination (plant, firm, industry, or economy level), an index of employment protection, migrant stock, the ratio of minimum to average wage, taxes on labour, and union density. These variables did not have a significant effect on total or female employment and were taken out of the equation. The second is a micro-dataset: the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009). Using this data we assessed the impact of attending preschool education on the achievements of 15 year-olds in Mathematics in the same countries mentioned above.

The findings are interesting. An increase in PSEC of 10% (making pre-primary education affordable and accessible) increases female employment by 6.1%. This result is substantial and intuitive since women are the major benefiters of PSEC. For the rest of the variables the impact on female employment is as follows. Expenditure on employment (welfare), rigidity of employment, and union coverage have a negative and significant effect on it, while the impact of coordinated wage bargaining, house ownership, and prison population is positive and significant. By contrast, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate have an insignificant effect.

It is also worth noting that prison population accounts for a large difference in employment rates between the US and the rest of the countries. This happens because inmates are not considered as unemployed and as a consequence are taken out of the statistics. This artificially inflates employment rates in the US. Anecdotally, the prison population of the US is of 743 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, and in Sweden it is of 78 inmates. This corresponds to 12.6% difference in total employment rates in favour of the US. Such a higher level of employment is artificial and does not result in higher productivity and it has high social and economic costs related to the need to operate prisons and to incarcerate so many people.

When comparing the social democratic economies with the liberal ones, it is possible to see that they attain high levels of employment through different roads. In the liberal economies flexibility is paramount while in social democratic economies publicly provided PSEC and coordinated wage bargaining play an important role.

On the other hand, using the PISA 2009 dataset, we were able to prove that attending PSEC is positively and significantly related to performance scores on reading at the age of 15 for all social groups. Hence, the cross-national analysis does not support the argument that raising levels of PSEC participation necessarily reduces social gaps in attainment at 15 years of age. Participation in PSEC increases educational performance by similar amounts for children of all social groups in most countries. Social gaps in performance at 15 may only be mitigated by high levels of PSEC provision where children from less advantaged families get more – or better quality – provision.

The important implication of this for policy is that for PSEC to reduce social gaps in school attainment it is not sufficient merely to increase aggregate PSEC participation rates. It would require policies with a substantial bias towards children from disadvantaged families so that they receive more – or better quality – PSEC than children from other social groups. Policy in England seems to be moving in this direction. On Sept 19th 2011 the Department for Education set out plans to extend the existing free entitlement of PSEC to 15 hours per week, which currently applies to all three and four year olds, and to all disadvantaged two year olds (i.e. for those qualifying for free school means or in local authority care). This should increase PSEC participation rates for disadvantaged families. DFE estimates that approximately 140000 two year olds would be eligible to benefit. However, it remains to be seen whether this will bias participation towards this group sufficiently to reduce inequalities in learning outcomes.

This study also appeared on Montrose42’s blog, on Nursery World, and on the page of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the IOE.

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Dr. Tarek Mostafa

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