Education Policy Outlook Highlights: United Kingdom


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  Last update 19 January 2015  
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Educational context

Students:  In PISA 2012, the United Kingdom performed at around the OECD average in mathematics and reading, with above-average performance in science. Student performance has remained unchanged across PISA cycles for all three subjects. The impact of socio-economic background on students’ performance in mathematics for the United Kingdom is slightly lower than the OECD average in PISA 2012 (although higher than average in Northern Ireland). Across the United Kingdom, 95% of 3-4 year-olds are enrolled in pre-primary education. In the Survey of Adult Skills , the combined scores for England and Northern Ireland amongst 16-65 year-olds were close to the overall average in literacy and significantly lower than the average in numeracy. Work is in process to reform the qualifications systems in England, Scotland and Wales. Attainment and graduation from tertiary education in the United Kingdom are high compared to the OECD average, with a comparatively high share of international students. Graduation rates are above OECD average for tertiary academic programmes.

Institutions: Students in the United Kingdom report positive learning environments, with school leaders providing pedagogical direction in a context of increasing school autonomy. Teachers are relatively young compared to their peers in other OECD countries. Depending on the UK country, school evaluation either has a greater focus on accountability through external evaluations (England), or is combined with internal self-evaluation (Northern Ireland and Scotland).

System: The United Kingdom is composed of four countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) which each have devolved responsibility for education policy. Each country has its own governance system, but there are some similarities in governance structures. Most policies are defined within each of the four countries and aim to provide an increasing role to schools and teachers. Expenditure on education is around the OECD average, with the share of expenditure  received directly by education institutions from private sources particularly high compared to other OECD countries. Funding policies vary across the United Kingdom, with some similarities in the range of funding allocations or grants for specific population subgroups.

Key policy issues

One of the main challenges across United Kingdom countries is to improve student performance and reduce performance gaps between students of different socio-economic backgrounds. Attracting high quality teachers and school leaders – and providing them with the tools to manage improvement – is also a challenge. In this process, some countries also consider it important to establish efficient co-ordination among actors, by reducing bureaucratic procedures and ensuring that sufficient funding reaches the most disadvantaged schools. Providing qualifications for successful transition into the labour market is also an issue.


Recent policy responses

England’s Pupil Premium programme (2011) aims to reduce inequities between students by providing additional school funding to support disadvantaged students and close attainment gaps. The Pupil Premium is available to students who have received free school meals at any point in the last six years. Schools decide how to use this funding. Funding for the programme in 2013/14 was GBP 1.875 billion (i.e. GBP 900 per disadvantaged student).

In Northern Ireland, Every School a Good School (ESaGS, 2009) is a policy for school improvement, which aims to support schools in raising standards and overcoming barriers to student learning.

Teaching Scotland's Future (2011), an extensive review of the teaching profession in Scotland, offers a series of measures to improve teacher professional learning, develop teachers’ careers, status, skills, and leadership, which are currently being implemented through partnerships at national, local and school levels. Among these measures is establishing the Scottish College for Educational Leadership and introducing Master level study pathways for teachers.

In Wales, the Qualifications Framework for 14-19 year-olds was reviewed in 2011, with final recommendations in 2012. Portability of qualifications was identified as of key interest. The National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) was introduced on a statutory basis in September 2013. The LNF aims to provide a continuum of development, clearly setting out annual expected outcomes in literacy and numeracy for 5-14 year-olds.

In PISA 2012, 15 year-olds in the United Kingdom achieved scores around the OECD average in mathematics and reading, and above the OECD average in science. The strength of the relationship between students’ socio-economic background and their performance in mathematics is slightly lower than the OECD average (although higher than the OECD average in Northern Ireland) (Figure 1).


Secondary and tertiary education attainment in the United Kingdom is slightly higher than the OECD average: 85% of 25‑34 year-olds have attained at least upper secondary education (compared to the OECD average of 82%) and 48% have attained tertiary education (compared to the OECD average of 39%) (Figure 2).



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