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English Education: World Class? – Sector Response

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In their major new report out today (23 Aug), English Education: World Class?, UCL Institute of Education and Education Policy Institute (EPI) have identified what these new grades mean in terms of a world class education system and how far education in England needs to improve to match the highest performing countries in the world.

The report states that England and other UK nations are ‘defined by disproportionate numbers of low attaining pupils’. The study adds that if any meaningful progress is to be made in catching up with the highest performing nations, a concerted effort must be made by policy-makers to significantly raise the educational outcomes of this group.

Petra Wilton Feb 2016 100x100Commenting on the findings of the report, Petra Wilton, CMI’s director of strategy and external affairs, said:

The EPI’s focus on low academic attainment is half of the picture; we need policymakers also to look at the disproportionate number of young people leaving education with little or no work-ready skills.

One way of tackling this would be to implement a new school-to-work syllabus in schools and colleges. This would help to develop employability, team leadership and management skills – areas in which UK graduates are also lacking, according to employers. Young people also need to be made more aware of alternative higher education options available to them, such as degree apprenticeships, which can provide a more affordable transition from education to professional careers.

DfE logo750x570A Department for Education spokesperson said:

Our education reforms are raising standards in our schools. There are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. This report underlines the importance of our reforms in creating new gold-standard GCSEs, benchmarked against the best education systems in the world.

Over the last six years we have incorporated the best features of successful curricula and qualifications from the around the world into our education system and signalled our intent to continue raising standards with the introduction of a standard and strong pass at GCSE. This is complemented by our ongoing investment in apprenticeships and the technical education system. We will continue to work with the teaching profession to ensure there is no limit on any child’s potential.


On Thursday (24th August, 2017), pupils will receive their GCSE results – which include the first set of results for English and maths under the new grading system. These new qualifications, designed to be more demanding, will see pupils achieve grades on a new 9-1 scale – with the Government defining a grade 5 as a ‘strong pass’.

The report uses the latest international PISA data in order to identify a ‘world-class standard’ (based on the performance of the highest attaining countries) and consider the performance of pupils in England in relation to the new standard – the results are represented in both current and new GCSE grading systems. 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.

Key findings

England vs. the new world-class standard

Overall performance

Looking at average overall attainment, we find that England’s education system needs to undergo significant improvement if it is to keep pace with the world’s best education systems:

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  • To match the highest performing countries in the world, 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 (and the equivalent of a high C or low B grade under the old system).
  • Applied to all subjects, this would require a total score of 50 points under the new ‘Attainment 8’ measure. For England to match the world’s best, we estimate that half of all pupils would need to achieve an overall score of 50 points or higher across Attainment 8 subjects.
  • 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 therefore need to make up a lot of ground, increasing this figure by a quarter – or an additional 60,000 pupils.
  • The proportion of pupils reaching the new world-class standard is around 20 percentage points lower than the historic 5+ A*-C (including English and mathematics) measure.

Performance in Maths

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 grade in England will need to increase by around two thirds per student – an increase from 4.7 to 5.4.
  • The number of top performing pupils (those securing an A*- B grade) would need to increase by over a third – an additional 96,000 pupils.
  • Crucially, the number of low performing pupils (those failing to secure a C grade) would almost need to be cut in half – or reduce by 60,000 pupils.

Performance in Reading

Reaching the world-class standard for English would require smaller, yet still significant, improvements in pupils’ performance at GCSE level:

  • England’s average English language grade will also need to increase – from around 4.7 to 4.9 points under the new grades.
  • The number of top performing pupils (achieving an A*- B grade) would need to increase by a sixth – an extra 42,000 pupils – to match the highest performing countries in native language reading – Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • Those performing at the lower end of the scale (pupils failing to secure a C grade) would also need to decease by over a quarter. This means the number also needs to fall by 42,000.

Performance in Science

  • For top attaining pupils in science (those achieving 5 points – a ‘strong pass’ – or higher) – the number of pupils needs to increase by just over an eighth to catch up with the highest performing countries – an increase of 48,000 pupils.
  • More critical to developing England’s performance in science to a world-class standard is improving the grades of the lowest-attaining pupils. To match the world’s best, England needs also to reduce the proportion of pupils scoring 4.5 points or below by just under a sixth – a reduction of around 36,000 pupils.

Comparing different areas in England

Nearly all local authorities fail to get at least half of their pupils to the world-class standard – with great variation within this level of performance:

  • 136 out 150 local authorities fail to get half of their pupils achieving on average a ‘strong pass’ – a total of 50 points under the new system.
  • Of the 14 areas where at least half of pupils reach or exceed the world-class standard, we find that most of these are academically selective – meaning that the performance in these areas is skewed by the selection of high-attaining pupils.
  • Areas such as the Isle of Wight, Knowsley, Blackpool, and Nottingham are significantly behind – with the proportion achieving on average a ‘strong pass’ at just over a quarter. In London, in contrast, 45 per cent of pupils achieved the world-class standard.
  • As expected, attainment is similarly low in the government’s ‘Opportunity Areas’, where on average, less than a third of pupils achieved the world-class standard in 2016.

Comparing England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

Our findings starkly uncover the extent of Wales’ poor performance – and the huge distance between it and the world-class standard:

  • Examining how well other UK nations perform, we 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 therefore need to drastically 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.
  • At the lower end of the attainment scale, all UK nations face a huge task in reducing the proportion of pupils struggling to secure a grade C. Once again, Wales faces the biggest challenge – to meet the world-class standard in maths it would need to cut the number of low performing pupils in half – while the required reduction in Scotland and Northern Ireland is just under a half.
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