Britain and the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment

Pearson have published their Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment for 2014. The Index ranks countries based on cognitive skills (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS scores in Reading, Maths and Science) and educational attainment (literacy and graduation rates). Heading up the 2014 ranking are the Asian educational powerhouse countries of South Korea, Japan and Singapore. It has been widely reported in the British press that the United Kingdom was ranked second in Europe – at 6th place, only behind Finland (5th place). Britain’s high performance seems to be the result of strong attainment rates, in particular, tertiary education attainment.

As part of the Cognitive Skills indicator there are three areas examined – Reading Literacy, Mathematics Literacy and Science Literacy. Singapore ranked number 1 across the Cognitive Skills indicator, emphasising their dominance in primary and secondary school performance and the strengths in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). The country’s higher education sector is well regarded in such disciplines, with several universities performing well in the QS University Subject rankings. The National University of Singapore was also ranked number 1 in the 2014 edition of the QS University Rankings: Asia, demonstrating its strength in the region.

The UK was ranked 8th internationally across the Cognitive Skills indicators. When you look at the results from the various international tests (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) the UK does not perform particularly well compared to some other countries. This is particularly noticeable in Maths and Science areas. In the Grade 8 PISA tests for instance, there are 19 countries that do better than the UK in Maths and 16 countries that perform better than the UK in science. TIMSS test scores seem to show a slightly better picture. The UK’s results on literacy are mixed across the various tests. In the face of the UK Government undertaking one of the most significant structural reforms of the English school system in history, it will be interesting to see how children in England perform in such tests going forward (and the impact on the performance of Britain as a given that the school systems of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales operate independently to the school system in England).

Britain’s strong place in the ranking seems to be attributed to consistent educational attainment rates, rather than cognitive skills performance. While at secondary level only Finland, Japan and South Korea score higher on secondary school graduation rates, it is on tertiary graduation rates where Britain’s performance is strongest. On tertiary graduation rates, Britain scores second of the ranked countries, with only Poland outperforming it.