How to improve PISA scores: more teachers and happy students

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders 

My guess is that if you’re working in a school – whatever its type and wherever you are – then the publication of this week’s international league tables (PISA tests) passed with barely a whimper.

That’s as it should be. 

Here at ASCL we remain sceptical about quite how much different contexts and cultures can be assessed in a meaningful way. Nevertheless – well done to a teaching profession that, despite the swirling politics and societal crossness with everything, continues to do great work across our schools and colleges, especially in helping young people with the ongoing slow emergence from the effects of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, for those not actually working in classrooms, within hours of the publication of the PISA results, the blame game was in full swing.

In England, Labour took aim at the Conservative government’s record on education, while in Wales the Conservatives criticised the Labour administration, and in Scotland both the Conservatives and Labour took the SNP to task.


The basis for all this was results which showed that the test scores of 15-year-olds in maths and reading fell in 2022 compared to 2018 in all UK nations, but by varying amounts. Science scores also fell, with the exception of England where they were equal to results in 2018. 

The UK nations were not alone. Overall, on average, the PISA 2022 assessment saw an “unprecedented drop in performance” across the OECD, something that the OECD said was “only partly attributable” to the Covid pandemic.

You’ll be relieved to hear that I am not going to try to unpick this any further. I’ll leave that to the think tanks and analysts who get quietly giddy over this sort of thing.

But there are some other findings from PISA which are more straightforward and arguably more illuminating.

The first of these is the wellbeing of young people.

Natalie Perera, of the Education Policy Institute, put this starkly in her commentary. “The reported life satisfaction scores of UK students fell drastically between 2015 and 2022, to the extent that the UK now has the second lowest average life satisfaction of 15 year-olds across all OECD countries,” she said.

We can guess at the cocktail of reasons involved – child poverty, lack of sufficient mental health support, the negative impact of social media, an exam system in England where government reforms have ratcheted up the pressure on young people, and the disruption and isolation caused by the Covid pandemic. All these are likely factors.

Indeed, on the first item in this list, the BBC reported another finding from PISA – teenagers in the UK are skipping more meals because of poverty than in many other Western European countries. 

All this makes for grim but unsurprising reading. It chimes with the experience of school and college leaders who frequently report rising rates of both poverty and poor mental health among students – factors which are not only a source of misery but also have an impact on educational attainment.

And the PISA results also point to something else which has an effect on attainment – teacher shortages. The study found that 54% of students in the UK were in schools whose headteacher reported that teaching is hindered by a lack of teaching staff. 

This is higher than the OECD average and a steep rise compared to 2018. It is unlikely to get better any time soon. Figures released yesterday on postgraduate recruitment to teacher training courses in England for 2023 to 2024 show that only half of the secondary recruitment target was achieved.

So, when policymakers consider how to improve attainment, whether that is in PISA tests or other measures, it’s important that they are focusing on the right things.

Firstly, we have to do more to support the wellbeing of young people. The rising tide of stress, anxiety and depression is simply unacceptable. In particular, politicians on all sides must commit to eradicating child poverty.

Secondly, policymakers have to get real about teacher shortages. No education system can deliver good outcomes for all its young people without the teachers to teach them. It is the vital resource upon which all targets and ambitions are dependent. 

Everybody recognises there are actions that could improve the recruitment and retention crisis. Better pay, better funding, reform of the accountability system. 

But there is a chasm between knowing the answer and the political will – and investment – to put that into reality. And in times that are economically tight, I fear that policymakers are just burying their heads in the sand.

That cannot go on forever. 

This week’s PISA scores, like any data, are simply like tin-openers: they help to open up issues. They don’t provide solutions. 

The lesson of the past week: there are many factors behind good educational outcomes but surely the best starting point is more teachers and happy students.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary

Posted: 08/12/2023 10:04:02