TIMSS 2015: No overall improvement since 2011 and younger girls falling behind

England has retained its place as a solid performer in maths and science for year 5 and year 9 pupils – but has seen no overall improvement since 2011, according to the latest international data from TIMSS.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), released by analysts in Massachusetts today, assessed 57 countries on their performance between 2011 to 2015, and their long-term pattern since the study began 20 years ago.

The TIMSS data, whose methods of collection are disputed, showed that pupils in England have strong maths and science achievements compared to other European countries, but not against east Asian countries.

Pupils aged nine to 10 year olds, and those aged 13 to 14 years, were tested in maths and science.

While there was a strong performance this year in year 9 science, that age group has not improved over the past 20 years.

Attainment in maths between girls and boys in primary schools also widened alarmingly.


Here are the six key findings from the data, which tested 600,000 pupils:

1. England is still pretty good at maths – but less so than east Asia once pupils get older

For maths in year 5, England held 10th position, behind Northern Ireland, Russia, Norway, and Ireland, before east Asian countries dominated the top places.

England was well ahead of the US, which is in 14th place, Denmark at 15th, Germany in 24th and Slovenia in 25th.

Yet England was 72 points behind the very top performer, Singapore, which was followed by its east Asian neighbours Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Japan, in that order.

The story was similarly stable for England’s year 9 pupils in maths, again holding 10th position, and the same five east Asian countries in top positions. Russia came in as a surprise contender in sixth place, behind Japan.


2. We are still OK at science – but improvement is stubborn

In year 5 science, England’s pupils hold 15th position, this time resolutely beaten by Finland and Russia, which sit high along with the east Asian countries.

Poland, the US, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Sweden and Norway are all ahead of England out of European countries, according to TIMSS.

English pupils in year 9 science pull their performance up, taking eighth position out of all surveyed.


Yet for improvement in both science and maths, the year 9 group is more stubborn. However, there has been an improvement over the last 20 years in year 5 science and in year 5 maths.

3. Long-term improvement overall in England is positive – short-term improvement not so much

A picture repeatedly emerges in which English pupils have not improved since the last TIMSS test four years ago, but have done so since the study began 20 years ago.

Attainment has not improved in the short-term in year 5 maths, though there was a slight increase in year 9 maths.

Nor has attainment improved in the short-term in year 5 science.

But English pupils have improved in maths for for year 5 over the long-term. They also improved over the long-term in year 5 science.

But year 9 pupils in science showed both the same attainment as four years ago, and the same as when the study first began 20 years ago.

This rise in attainment over the long-term, and stability in the short-term, either shows “a resilience of the system” in the face of much educational change in England, or that various recent policy changes have yet to have any effect, experts told Schools Week.


4. Finland has dropped its position – with other European countries pulling ahead

Much-lauded education system Finland was seven points behind England in the data for maths in primary school, in 12th place.

That result represented a drop in its results, along with Germany and the Netherlands, in maths for year 5 pupils, compared to four years ago.

However, Finland did well in year 5 science, coming in seventh place. The country did not enter the year 9 science and maths data set.

Ben Durbin, head of international education at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), said “education policy tourism” was likely to be travelling elsewhere in Europe in the coming years.

“Certainly the drop in Finland is notable, given so much attention has been given to Finland in the past, and there are other countries like Poland, Kazakhstan Czech Republic, Slovenia, all which have seen strong improvement.

“As we’ve seen Finland’s rise and drop, it’s likely in years to come that we’ll give more attention to those other countries”.


5. The gender gap for boys and girls in maths at year 5 has widened

In 2015, year 5 boys performed significantly higher than girls in maths, which showed a reopening of a gender gap that had almost disappeared by 2007.

Girls and boys in year 9 scored similarly in maths, and scored similarly across science in all age groups.

This finding was in the context of a global reduction in gender gaps in educational attainment, and was a “surprise” in the findings, said experts.


 6. But English pupils enjoy their learning

English pupils experience a good balance of solid academic achievement with relatively high levels of school enjoyment, particularly in comparison to east Asian countries.

Almost all (97 per cent) year give pupils and 80 per cent of year nine pupils in England reported that maths teaching was either engaging or very engaging.

In science, 94 per cent of year nine pupils in England viewed teaching in science to be either engaging or very engaging, compared to 80 per cent of year nine pupils.

But those in year nine who saw science as “very engaging” dropped off significantly, at just 38 per cent, compared to the 70 per cent of primary school pupils who were so enthused.

However, more year five and nine pupils in England viewed teaching as being very engaging than their peers in the five countries that were highest performing: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply to Lucy Crehan Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.


  1. Lucy Crehan

    Just a little correction on Finland – they didn’t come in the top 25 in maths for 14yr olds because they didn’t enter any students in this age group, not because they came in below 25th…

  2. Headline is misleading. The ‘no improvement’ is only true in Science at age 14. Even then, it doesn’t tell the whole picture because English 14 year-olds are still in the top ten (9th out of 39 countries).
    English ten-year-olds had a higher average achievement in Science over twenty years. Their relative position was 15th out of 47.
    In Maths, both English 10 and 14 year-olds had higher average achievement over 20 years. 10 year-olds were 10th out of 49; 14 year-olds were 10th of 39.
    No doubt the DfE, Nick Gibb et al will seize on the headline to tweet ‘No improvement in 20 years’ and add something like, ‘England trails in league tables. Complete survey about increasing number of good schools’.