Standards in English Primary Education: the international evidence

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What the resource is:
This report, one of a series of interim reports from the Cambridge Primary Review, is an independent enquiry into the condition and future of primary education in England with a specific focus on the comparative performance of English pupils in reading, mathematics and science.

The aims of the resource:

The aim was to contribute to the debate about English primary education. The report examined six international studies of primary-aged pupils identified as relevant. It surveyed the evidence of the comparative performance of English primary-aged children, over time, in relation to those from other participating countries. The context of each international survey was explained and its methodological basis was examined meticulously. It drew extensively from published critiques of others. Criticisms and problems of the reviewed reports were raised. The findings of each study were scrutinized. The strengths and limitations of data were highlighted and the implications for the future international monitoring of educational standards were identified and reported.

Key findings or focus:
Concluding that "direct evidence on the performance of primary school pupils in England from international surveys is sparser than might be expected", its main findings are:


  • pupils' performance in mathematics is currently "in the middle rank, below that of Pacific Rim and northern European countries, but significantly better than some other English speaking countries"(p.19)
  • pupils' performance is improving slightly in mathematics over earlier surveys where "England's performance was very poor" (p.19)


  • greater cultural problems exist in the comparison of assessment for reading and the reliability of the evidence was weak
  • the most recent survey suggested that "the reading skills of English pupils were among the highest in the world, with good achievement in both literary and information reading"(p.19)
  • standards in reading were improving over earlier surveys
  • high attainment is gained at "the expense of enjoyment of reading" (p.19).


  • performance has risen significantly from 1995 to 2003
  • England's comparative performance in science is improving over time.

Other issues

  • the range of scores for England across all three subjects is high
  • "high attaining English pupils are among the top ranking in the world in reading and science" (p.19)
  • low attaining pupils in reading and science are far below the best in attainment
  • the average performance of pupils in mathematics is poor compared with other English speaking countries and many other countries
  • international surveys now have a robust methodology and are an important source of information on the relative performance of England's education system
  • data provided within reports in the review provide opportunities for further, secondary analysis. 

The quality, authority and credibility of the resource:
This review was detailed, highly objective, authoritative and credible in its scrutiny and reporting. It explored, in detail, each of the six reports on which the review was based. The quality of the adopted methodology and the validity and reliability of their findings was examined at a very detailed and impressive level. 

The implications for ITE tutors/mentors:
This report has relevance to a number of specific groups of students particularly those undertaking study at levels 3 and 4. It provides an excellent model for use in raising students' awareness of, and skills in, objective, critical analysis of research papers. Clearly there is relevance to generalist trainees with a particular interest in the standards of pupils' performance in reading, mathematics and science. Some may find interest in the detail provided on the purpose of international tests, including the problems of test question design and the ‘political' dimension. Overall the report provides an excellent model of scrutiny of evidence and consideration of issues of validity and reliability and consideration of sampling techniques. The report will also be of interest to those who are interested in international comparisons of pupils' performance over time and/or in the development of ‘culture free' tests.

The relevance to ITE students:
The findings of the report are highly relevant to all intending generalist primary teachers and those with a special interest in the development of reading, mathematics or science in primary schools. It specifically addresses the complex question of whether standards in primary education have dropped over time. Although the report does not explore solutions, or provide advice on practice, the reports findings raise relevant and pertinent questions for further research either at the international comparative level or within a school or specific classroom situation. Extensive references will provide a starting point for further reading.  

Reviewed by:
Judith Roden

Authors :

Whetton, C., Ruddock, G. and Twist, L.

Source :

Publisher :

Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

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