What does PISA teach us?


Ministers constantly refer to the international PISA study to justify reforms. Diane Lloyd asks if we should be relying so heavily on the PISA rankings.

International bench-marking and educational reform seem more important than ever. 

International comparisons using such data are not new and have been used since 2000. However, the current coalition government  brings it to the forefront whenever educational reforms are discussed.

Of the various international tables, it is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which appears to be part of the reasoning for the current reforms.

PISA is an evaluation of reading, mathematics, and science literacy among 15-year-olds. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducts PISA every three years. The number of countries participating has grown from 43 in 2000 to 65 in 2012. The most recent testing was in 2012 for which results will be available later this year.

Currently, the UK is ranked 25th for reading, 28th for mathematics and 16th for science. In comparison, Finland and South Korea have been consistently at or near top of this international table since it began.

The OECD describes Finland thus: “One of the world leaders in the academic performance of its secondary school students. A position it has held for the past decade. This top performance is also remarkably consistent across schools. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socio-economic status.”

How has Finland achieved such status and what are the key features of the Finnish education system when compared with our own? Are there lessons we need to learn? It appears that the four key features of the Finnish education system that have contributed to its performance are accountability, sustainability, teaching and learning, and culture.


  • The evaluation of student outcomes is the responsibility of each teacher and school.

  • Assessment is based on teacher-created tests in school and sample-based national assessments.

  • The one test the matriculation examination and board administers to test the national core curriculum is only tested at upper secondary level. The essay-based, open-ended assessment is sat twice a year and must be taken over an 18-month period.


  • A comprehensive, fully integrated school system.

  • Governments agree that only a highly and widely educated nation will be successful.

  • The 1990s saw a move to a trust-based culture, with teachers being trusted to make assessments.

  • The focus is not just equal access to education, but a guarantee of high quality education for all.

Teaching and learning 

  • Streaming abolished in comprehensive schools.

  • Mixed-ability teaching, with all learners studying maths and languages, regardless of abilities, in the same class.

  • State education starts at age seven but there is early childhood care available, including voluntary free pre-school. All learners have an assessment of their support needs before starting school.

  • Teachers are all trained to Master’s level.


  • Child poverty is at low levels.

  • Free, healthy lunch for all pupils.

  • More than 60 per cent of students attend university, which is free for all.

  • More than half of adults are in adult education.


It is interesting to compare the key features of Finland’s education system to the other country that appears regularly at the top of the PISA ratings, South Korea. In terms of a culture of testing, the top two PISA countries could not be further apart. South Korea also has a set curriculum and young people spend many more hours in formal learning, including after-school private tuition. One similarity is the high status that both teachers and education holds within both countries’ societies.

There are numerous criticisms of the PISA data and one problem is simply whether a single assessment can really judge the quality of education in a country. A major critique of PISA has been the use of an artificial league table, underneath which is a far more complex social and cultural picture (see Alternative Models for Analysing and Representing Countries’ Performance in PISA – Mortimore, 2009). After all, English culture is deeply embroiled in league tables and we can all question whether they show the true picture of our learners.

Mortimore also questions whether the students taking the PISA tests are really representative of all abilities. PISA does check the sample against agreed criteria but the question remains: should the quality of an education system be based on achievement in reading, writing and mathematics?

PISA produces additional contextual data but this is not focused on by governments or ministers – the only thing that makes the headlines is the ranking.

The Learning Curve, a recent publication by Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit, finds that the creating of a comparative index of education performance is not a straightforward exercise at all.

The publication looks at a number of international comparisons beyond PISA. The authors conclude that there are few strong relationships between education inputs and outputs, there is no substitute for good teachers, and that although income matters – culture matters more.

  • Diane Lloyd is a senior lecturer in education with Liverpool John Moores University.

  • Alternative Models for Analysing and Representing Countries’ Performance in PISA. Peter Mortimore (2009) Paper commissioned by Education International Research Institute Brussels.
  • The Learning Curve: Lessons in country performance in education (2012) Pearson (EIU).


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin