PISA – When it comes to gender, we’re all in this together

Warwick Mansell's picture
The headline over the story on the Guardian’s education website on Thursday was stark. “Figures show poorest boys in England still let down by school system,” it warned.

And few readers could be left in any doubt that England’s schools system was in some way deficient, based as the article was on figures showing that, this year, 53 per cent of boys on free school meals in England achieved the Government’s expected level in both maths and English Key Stage 2 Sats.

The statistics were described as “unacceptable” by Nick Gibb, schools minister, who said they showed how the poorest boys were being let down by the schools system and then set out how the government was planning to improve the situation by placing a greater emphasis on teaching phonics.

Yet what readers of the article are unlikely to know – and what Mr Gibb did not acknowledge in the reported comment - is that this is an international phenomenon.

And indeed, far from it being a problem specific to our education system, there was evidence this week that boys – if not specifically working-class boys – actually fare better in the UK, relative to girls, than they do elsewhere.

I was at a conference this week where an academic from Finland, speaking to explain her country’s success in the world’s best-known international testing study, pointed out that the underachievement of working class boys was a “problem for everyone”, in all countries, including Finland.

A closer look at the figures from the study, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s “PISA” (Programme for International Study Assessment) tests for 15-year-olds, is very interesting. For background, these tests assess pupils’ ability to apply their thinking skills in reading, maths and science. I have written more generally about how England performed here.

The results, released on Tuesday based on tests taken in 2009, show girls were ahead of boys in reading – the main tested subject - in all 34 OECD countries taking the tests. But in the UK, the gender gap in reading test performance was smaller than in almost all of them, at only 25 points. For context, the international average for performance in these tests has been set at 500 points, and the difference between the poorest and richest pupils, of which more below, runs at around 300 points.

In the reading tests, only Chile and the Netherlands had a smaller gender gap than the UK, with girls ahead of boys by 22 and 24 points respectively, while in the US and Mexico, the figure was also 25 points. Ironically, given its general success in producing an equitable education system, Finland shared the largest gap with Slovenia, at 55 points.

Boys in the UK also did very well, relative to girls, in the two other tested subjects of maths and science. In maths, boys in general performed better than girls in every tested country except Sweden. The UK had a larger performance gap in favour of boys – at 20 points – than any country except Belgium, Chile and the US.

In the science tests, where countries were evenly split between those where girls did better and those where boys did so, UK boys performed nine points better than UK girls on average. This was the third largest gap in favour of boys overall, with only the US and Denmark ahead.

Admittedly, some of these differences are small. But it is certainly not the case, if the test scores from PISA are any guide, that boys’ relatively poor performance is particularly pronounced in this country. If, then, boys are being failed by an education system, in terms of reading, they are being failed internationally, rather than simply because of anything particularly bad about the English regime, again if these test scores are any guide.

There is, then, plenty of international evidence that boys are more likely than girls to do poorly in reading tests.
In fact, if you dig more deeply into the PISA figures, there are some trends which might make any educator concerned about boys’ reading performance internationally sit up and take notice. For not only are girls ahead in this subject, they seem to be pulling further ahead as time goes by.

One of the tables in the vast amount of information produced for PISA shows how the percentage of low performers in reading – those scoring only level 1 in the six-point PISA scale – has changed over the nine years (2000-2009) that the tests have been running. This is analysed by gender.

In almost all countries where the number of these low performers has fallen since 2000, girls had made larger gains than boys. Similarly, even where the numbers doing badly in reading tests have actually grown – and around half of the countries tested are in this position – in most countries it is boys doing increasingly badly who are increasing the percentage of low-performers, rather than girls.

One set of statistics, I think, provides a big clue as to why this might be happening. As part of PISA, the OECD also asks the tested pupils a number of questions, including how often they read for pleasure.

The figures show how reading for pleasure among the tested pupils has declined in most of the tested countries, since 2000. Then, 60 per cent of boys and 77 per cent of girls said they read for enjoyment daily. In 2009, the figures were 54 and 74 per cent respectively, which represents a larger fall among boys. In almost every country where there has been a fall in reading for pleasure, the change has been faster among boys.

The focus in the Sats testing story was on the performance of boys eligible free school meals, so it is also worth considering the socio-economic dimension in international comparisons. And here, I have to confess I’ve not been able to find, in the PISA data, a figure which considers gender differences in test scores according to pupils’ material backgrounds.

However, it is possible to look at statistics on the gap overall, across all pupils whether boys or girls, between children who come from the poorest backgrounds, and those who come from the richest.

The OECD constructs an index of economic, social and cultural status for each pupil taking the test. This is calculated according to a survey which takes into account each child’s parents’ occupations, parental education levels and possessions in the family home.

It is then possible to compare the performance of children from the most “well-off” backgrounds, as measured by this index, in the reading tests compared to those from the least well-off.

So, I compared the performance of children in the five per cent most well-off homes in each country with those in the five per cent least well-off.

The first thing to note is that the differences in reading scores, in all countries, between these two groups of pupils – well-off and not-so-well-off are, unsurprisingly, huge. Average pupil reading performance in the OECD countries tested by PISA vary by 114 points, from 425 in Mexico to 539 in Korea, where 500 was originally set as the international average.

But the difference within each country, between the performance in reading of those from the best-off homes, and those from the least, is never less than 230 points. Overall, internationally, children from the five per cent best-off homes in each country scored 639 points on average. Among those from the five per cent worst-off homes, the average reading score was 334.

And how does the UK fare on these measures? Well, its gap between rich and poor pupils is not great, but it is not the worst in the world, either. It ranks 13th out of 32 in my unofficial league table showing the gap in reading performance between those from well-off backgrounds and those in the poorest. The points gap in the UK was 312 on the measure outlined above, compared to 366 in Israel, 346 in France and 342 in Luxembourg. The countries with the smallest gaps were Portugal on 236, Korea on 258 and Turkey on 271. And children from the poorest homes in the UK perform, as a group in these league tables, right in the middle of the national average when considered against their peers internationally. Those from its richest homes perform just above the international average.

I apologise for this blizzard of stats. But it just goes to show that, when you hear that the “education system” is letting down boys, or poor pupils, or both, it is as well to recognise that we are, as countries, as the saying goes, largely all in this together.
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Alison's picture
Sun, 12/12/2010 - 19:52

Thank you for producing some sense on this!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 08:39

This is fascinating Warwick. Two major lessons are here for teachers:
1. We need to pay more attention to gender differences: the gap between girls and boys achievement seems to be huge across the board. At least, we are better than some!
2. We need to re-think how we teach different social classes. I think that's why parenting programmes like Families and Schools Together are so important. http://familiesandschools.org/international-article.php?i=44&a=&nt=

Anthony Wilson's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 10:50

Thank you Warwick for this and all of your other recent articles which are a model of good sense. You shed light not heat on the issues which affect so many children and families.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 13:15

Thanks again for this Warwick. I think you're right that reading for pleasure seems to have diminished in terms of reading fiction, but I've noticed that my pupils probably read more now than they did 10 years ago because they're on FaceBook, Twitter, discussion sites like this. Perhaps this is not measured by the PISA which tests more formal reading skills? I must confess I need to know more about the PISA test. Peter Wilby in the TES was critical of it.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 14:38

I've got a boy in one of my Key Stage 3 classes who has been struggling until recently: no books, writes very little, seldom joins in, poor concentration. In the past few weeks though, he's got much better. This is partly because our school's assessment's systems have thrown this up: we assess every six weeks and report to parents. But also, gratifyingly, I asked him why he thought done better in English and he said today, I kid you not, "Because I enjoy it!" Wow! That made me feel good, but it did make me think with regards to the PISA that enjoyment should be at the heart of the curriculum if we're going to raise the attainment of boys who are struggling. The word "enjoyment" is not in many policy documents.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 14:43

There was one aspect of the PISA report I did find puzzling and I quote;
"In the United Kingdom there are 27% of students in schools with a socio-economically disadvantaged intake, of which 48% are students who are socio-economically disadvantaged themselves (i.e. they are overrepresented). Disadvantaged students tend to do worse than expected in disadvantaged schools, but by about the same margin as in many other OECD countries, and advantaged students tend to do much worse than expected, in this case by a larger margin than average."

Taking this to its logical conclusion all students must do worse in disadvantaged schools. So in this situation how do these schools ever manage to turn themselves around? Empirical evidence shows that they do, some with collaboration from other schools but that cannot be the whole story. It isn't the case, according to the report, that these schools suffer more with poor teaching so that the teaching staff have to be replaced.

One way a school could improve is for the disadvantaged pupils, euphemism for FSM, to become more advantaged, and another is that this piece of the PISA report is flawed and middle class parents do make a discernible difference by ensuring their kids do well at these schools thereby raising overall standards and attracting other middle class kids.

Alison's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 15:05

Enjoyment is not in policy documents because education is seen only as "good" if it is the equivalent of a cold shower. I think this is a hang over from Victorian times. We don;t beat the children any more or make then wear a dunces cap but other than that not much has changed. Current messages seem to be signalling a return to "facts" and "knowledge". Learning should be enjoyable. Children spend a huge amount of time in school and they should enjoy it!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 13/12/2010 - 15:23

Yes, Alison. We should start a campaign to put the enjoyment into the policy documents. Maybe it should be part of Cameron's happiness survey etc?? I am not sure Michael Gove is very keen for students to enjoy their experience at school; I think he sees it as evidence of "dumbing down" etc. But in my view, pupils don't like if they're asked to mindless tasks like colouring in and copying. They enjoy stuff like role-playing, relevant games, class debates, creative writing, creating art, making films, doing experiments.

Warwick Mansell's picture
Tue, 14/12/2010 - 15:24

Probably a bit late in my comment in response to this, but thanks very much for the comments.
I should perhaps have said in the blog that children who reported enjoying reading were found, in the PISA results, to do better in tests, with performance gradually improving as reported enjoyment rose.
No surprise there, I suppose, but PISA does attempt to quantify this, saying that around 18 per cent in the differences in pupils' PISA reading scores can be explained by the degree to which children enjoy reading. In the UK, the figure was slightly higher, at 22 per cent.
It seems plausible to me that the international decline in the number of girls and particularly boys reading for pleasure could be explained by the rise in technological distractions, although as Francis rightly points out, often technology itself involves a lot of reading.
One final point the academic from Finland made was that reading success in that country may come in part from the fact that a large proportion of TV programmes in that country were, at least when this generation of PISA pupils were growing up, broadcast in English with Finnish subtitles.
So many children were exposed to reading (as well as English) through this mechanism from a young age. This is the second time I've heard this put forward as a factor in Finland's success.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 14/12/2010 - 23:29

It's fascinating to read that Finland's great PISA scores could be due to the TV-watching habits; perhaps Mr Gove should be micro-managing children's TV rather than the curriculum??!

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