PISA 2012: International Comparison of High Achievers’ Performance


This post examines what PISA 2012 can tell us about the comparative performance of high achievers in England, other English-speaking countries and those that top the PISA rankings.

Introductory Brochure for PISA 2012 by Kristjan Paur

Introductory Brochure for PISA 2012 by Kristjan Paur

It draws on a similar range of evidence to that deployed in my post on the PISA 2009 results (December 2010).

A more recent piece, ‘The Performance of Gifted High Achievers in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA’ (January 2013) is also relevant.

The post reviews:

  • How the PISA 2012 Assessment Framework defines reading, mathematical and scientific literacy and its definitions of high achievement in each of the three core domains.
  • How average (headline) performance on the three core measures has changed in each jurisdiction compared with PISA 2006 and PISA 2009.
  • By comparison, how high achievers’ performance – and the balance between high and low achievers’ performance – has changed in each jurisdiction over the same period.
  • How jurisdictions compare on the ‘all-rounder’ measure, derived from achievement of a high performance threshold on all three assessments.

The twelve jurisdictions included in the main analysis are: Australia, Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, New Zealand, Shanghai (China), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the USA.

The post also compares the performance of the five home countries against the high achievement thresholds. I have foregrounded this analysis, which appears immediately below, save only for the headline (but potentially misleading) ‘top 10’ high achiever rankings for 2012.




World Leaders against PISA’s High Achievement Benchmarks

The top 10 performers in PISA 2012 against the high achievement benchmarks (Level 5 and above), in reading, maths and science respectively, are set out in Table 1 below.

The 2009 rankings are shown in brackets and the 2012 overall average rankings in bold, square brackets. I have also included England’s rankings.


Table 1

Rank Reading Maths Science
1 Shanghai (1) [1] Shanghai (1) [1] Shanghai (1) [1]
2 Singapore (3) [3] Singapore (2) [2] Singapore (2) [3]
3 Japan (5) [4] Taiwan (4) [4] Japan (5) [4]
4 Hong Kong (9) [2] Hong Kong (3) [3] Finland (3) [5]
5 S. Korea (6) [5] S Korea (5) [5] Hong Kong (6) [2]
6 N Zealand (2) [13] Liechtenstein (13) [8] Australia (7) [16]
7 Finland (4) [6] Macao (15) [6] N Zealand (4) [18]
8 Canada (7=) [8] Japan (8) [7] Estonia (17) [6]
9 France (13) [21] Switzerland (6) [9] Germany (8) [12]
10 Belgium (10) [16] Belgium (9) [15] [15] Netherlands (9) [14]
England 19th (19) [23] England 24th (32) [25] England 11th  (12) [18]


On the basis of these crude rankings alone, it is evident that Shanghai has maintained its ascendancy across all three domains.

Singapore has reinforced its runner-up position by overtaking New Zealand in reading. Hong Kong and Japan also make it into the top ten in all three domains.

Notable improvements in the rankings have been made by:

  • Japan, Hong Kong and France in reading
  • Liechtenstein and Macao in maths
  • Japan and Estonia in science



Jurisdictions falling down the rankings include:

  • Australia, New Zealand and Finland in reading
  • Finland and Switzerland in maths
  • Canada and New Zealand in science.

Those whose high achiever rankings significantly exceed their average rankings include:

  • New Zealand, France and Belgium in reading
  • Belgium in maths
  • Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands in science

The only one of the top ten jurisdictions exhibiting the reverse pattern with any degree of significance is Hong Kong, in science.

On this evidence, England has maintained its relatively strong showing in science and a mid-table position in reading, but it has slipped several places in maths.

Comparing England’s rankings for high achievers with its rankings for average performance:

  • Reading 19th versus 23rd
  • Maths 24th versus 25th
  • Science 11th versus 18th

This suggests that England is substantively stronger at the top end of the achievement spectrum in science, slightly stronger in reading and almost identical in maths. (The analysis below explores whether this is borne out by the proportions of learners achieving the relevant PISA thresholds.)

Overall, these rankings suggest that England is a respectable performer at the top end, but nothing to write home about. It is not deteriorating, relatively speaking – with the possible exception of mathematics – but it is not improving significantly either. The imbalance is not atypical and it requires attention, but only as part of a determined effort to build performance at both ends.


Comparing the Home Countries’ Performance

Table 2 below shows how each home country has performed at Level 5 and above in each of the three core PISA assessments since 2006.


Table 2

  2012 Level 5+ 2009 Level 5+ 2006 Level 5+
  Read Maths Sci Read Maths Sci Read Maths Sci
England 9.1 12.4 11.7 8.1 9.9 11.6 9.2 11.2 14.0
N Ireland 8.3 10.3 10.3 9.3 10.3 11.8 10.4 12.2 13.9
Scotland 7.8 10.9 8.8 9.2 12.3 11.0 8.5 12.1 12.5
Wales 4.7 5.3 5.7 5.0 5.0 7.8 6.4 7.2 10.9
UK 8.8 11.9 11.1 8.0 9.9 11.4 9.0 11.2 13.8
OECD average 8.4 12.6 8.4 7.6 12.7 8.5 8.6 13.3 9.0


In 2012, England is ahead of the other home countries in all three domains. Northern Ireland is runner-up in reading and science, Scotland in maths. Wales is a long way behind the other four in all three assessments.

Only England tops the OECD average in reading. All the home countries fall below the OECD average in maths, though all but Wales are above it in science.

Compared with 2006, England’s performance has changed little in reading, increased somewhat in maths (having fallen back betweentimes) and fallen quite significantly in science.

In comparison, Northern Ireland is on a downward trend in all three domains, as is Scotland (though it produced small improvements in maths and reading in 2009). Wales has fallen back significantly in science, though somewhat less so in reading and maths.

It seems that none of the home countries is particularly outstanding when it comes to the performance of their high achievers, but England is the strongest of the four, while Wales is clearly the weakest.

A slightly different perspective can be gained by comparing high and low performance in 2012.

Table 3 below shows that the proportion of low achievers is comfortably larger than the proportion of high achievers. This is true of all the home countries and all subjects, though the difference is less pronounced in science across the board and also in Scotland. Conversely, the imbalance is much more significant in Wales.


Table 3

2012 Reading Maths Science
  L5+6 L1+below L5+6 L1+below L5+6 L1+below
England 9.1 16.7 12.4 21.7 11.7 14.9
N Ireland 8.3 16.7 10.3 24.1 10.3 16.8
Scotland 7.8 12.5 10.9 18.2 8.8 12.1
Wales 4.7 20.6 5.3 29.0 5.7 19.4
UK 8.8 16.7 11.9 21.8 11.1 15.0
OECD average 8.4 8.4 12.6 23.0 8.4 17.8


The ‘tail’ in reading is significantly higher than the OECD average in all four countries but – with the exception of Wales – somewhat lower in science.

In maths, the ‘tail’ is higher than the OECD average in Wales and Northern Ireland, but below average in England and Scotland.

The average figures suggest that, across the OECD as a whole, the top and bottom are broadly balanced in reading, there is a small imbalance in science towards the bottom end and a more significant imbalance in maths, again towards the bottom end.

By comparison, the home countries have a major issue at the bottom in reading, but are less significantly out of line in maths and science.

Overall, there is some evidence here of a longish tail of low achievement, but with considerable variation according to country and domain.

The bottom line is that all of the home countries have significant issues to address at both the top and the bottom of the achievement distribution. Any suggestion that they need to concentrate exclusively on low achievers is not supported by this evidence.


Francois Peron National Park by Gifted Phoenix 2013

Francois Peron National Park by Gifted Phoenix 2013


Background to PISA


What is PISA?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial OECD survey of the performance of 15 year-old students which typically covers maths, science and reading. Science was the main focus in 2006, reading in 2009 and maths in 2012.

PISA 2012 also included a computer-based assessment of problem-solving and a financial literacy assessment. However, some jurisdictions did not participate in the problem-solving exercise owing to ‘technical issues’ and financial literacy was undertaken by some countries only, as an optional extra.

Fifty-eight jurisdictions took part in PISA 2006 and 74 in PISA 2009 (65 undertook the assessment in 2009 and a further nine did so in 2010).

To date, a total of 65 jurisdictions have also taken part in PISA 2012.

According to the OECD’s own FAQ:

  • PISA tests reading, mathematical and scientific literacy ‘in terms of general competencies, that is, how well students can apply the knowledge and skills they have learned at school to real-life challenges. PISA does not test how well a student has mastered a school’s specific curriculum.’
  • Student performance in each field is comparable between assessments – one cannot reasonably argue therefore that a drop in performance is attributable to a more difficult assessment.
  • Each participating jurisdiction receives an overall score in each subject area – the average of all its students’ scores. The average score among OECD countries is set at 500 points (with a standard deviation of 100 points).
  • Participating jurisdictions are ranked in each subject area according to their mean scores, but:

‘is not possible to assign a single exact rank in each subject to each country…because PISA tests only a sample of students from each country and this result is then adjusted to reflect the whole population of 15-year-old students in that country. The scores thus reflect a small measure of statistical uncertainty and it is therefore only possible to report the range of positions (upper rank and lower rank) within which a country can be placed.’

Outside the confines of reports by the OECD and its national contractors, this is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

  • Scores are derived from scales applied to each subject area. Each scale is divided into levels, Level 1 being the lowest and Level 6 typically the highest

Further background detail on the 2012 assessments is set out in the ‘PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework’ (2013).

This explains that the framework for assessing maths was completely revised ahead of the 2012 cycle and ‘introduces three new mathematical processes that form the basis of developments in the reporting of PISA mathematics outcomes’, whereas those for science and reading were unchanged (the science framework was revised when it was the main focus in 2006 and ditto for reading in 2009).

The Framework clarifies the competency-based approach summarised in the FAQ:

‘ISA focuses on competencies that 15-year-old students will need in the future and seeks to assess what they can do with what they have learnt – reflecting the ability of students to continue learning throughout their lives by applying what they learn in school to non-school environments, evaluating their choices and making decisions. The assessment is informed, but not constrained, by the common denominator of national curricula. Thus, while it does assess students’ knowledge, PISA also examines their ability to reflect, and to apply their knowledge and experience to real-life issues in a reflective way. For example, in order to understand and evaluate scientific advice on food safety, an adult would need not only to know some basic facts about the composition of nutrients, but also to be able to apply that information.’

It explains that between 4,500 and 10,000 students drawn from 150 schools are typically tested in each jurisdiction.

Initial reports suggested that England would not take part in the 2012 assessments of problem-solving and financial literacy, but it subsequently emerged that this decision had been reversed in respect of problem-solving.


Setting PISA Outcomes in Context

There are plenty of reasons why one should not place excessive weight on PISA outcomes:

  • The headline rankings carry a significant health warning, which remains important, even though it is commonly ignored.

‘As the PISA 2000 and PISA 2003 samples for the United Kingdom did not meet the PISA response-rate standards, no trend comparisons are possible for these years.’ (p.1)

Hence, for the UK at least, reliable comparisons with pre-2006 results are off the table.

‘The pressure from policymakers for advice based on PISA interacts with this unhealthy mix of policy and technical people. The technical experts make sure that the appropriate caveats are noted, but the warnings are all too often ignored by the needs of the policy arm of PISA. As a result, PISA reports often list the known problems with the data, but then the policy advice flows as though those problems didn’t exist. Consequently, some have argued that PISA has become a vehicle for policy advocacy in which advice is built on flimsy data and flawed analysis.’

  • PISA is not the only game in town. TIMSS and PIRLS are equally significant, though relatively more focused on content knowledge, whereas PISA is primarily concerned with the application of skills in real life scenarios.
  • There are big political risks associated with worshipping at the PISA altar for, if the next set of outcomes is disappointing, the only possible escape route is to blame the previous administration, a strategy that wears increasingly thin with the electorate the longer the current administration has been in power.



It would be quite wrong to dismiss PISA results out of hand, however. They are a significant indicator of the comparative performance of national (and regional) education systems. But they are solely an indicator, rather than a statement of fact.


What is assessed – and what constitutes high achievement – in each domain

The Assessment and Analytical Framework provides definitions of each domain and level descriptors for each level within the assessments.


Mathematical Literacy

The PISA 2012 mathematics framework defines mathematical literacy as:

‘An individual’s capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. It includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. It assists individuals to recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and to make the well-founded judgments and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens.’

Three aspects of maths are identified:

  • Mathematical processes and the fundamental capabilities underlying them. Three processes are itemised: formulating situations mathematically; employing mathematical concepts, facts, procedures and reasoning; and interpreting, applying and evaluating mathematical outcomes. The capabilities are: communication; mathematizing (transforming a real life problem to a mathematical form); representation; reasoning and argument; devising problem-solving strategies; using symbolic, formal and technical language and operations; and using mathematical tools.
  • Content knowledge, comprising four elements: change and relationships; space and shape; quantity; and uncertainty and data.
  • The contexts in which mathematical challenges are presented: personal; occupational; societal and scientific.

Six levels are identified within the PISA 2012 mathematics scale’. The top two are described thus:

  • ‘At Level 6 students can conceptualise, generalise and utilise information based on their investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and flexibly translate among them. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply their insight and understandings along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations. Students at this level can formulate and precisely communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings, interpretations, arguments and the appropriateness of these to the original situations.’
  • ‘At Level 5 students can develop and work with models for complex situations, identifying constraints and specifying assumptions. They can select, compare and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies for dealing with complex problems related to these models. Students at this level can work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills, appropriate linked representations, symbolic and formal characterisations and insight pertaining to these situations. They can reflect on their actions and formulate and communicate their interpretations and reasoning.’


Reading literacy

Reading Literacy is defined as:

‘An individual’s capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society.’

The assessment ‘is built on three major task characteristics’:

  • Situation – the context or purpose for which reading takes place, which may be personal (practical and intellectual interests), public (activities and concerns of society), educational (for learning purposes) or occupational (accomplishment of a task).
  • Text – the range of material that is read, which may be print or digital. In the case of digital text, the environment may be authored (the reader is receptive), message based, or mixed. In the case of both print and digital text, the format may be continuous (sentences and paragraphs), non-continuous (eg graphs, lists), mixed or multiple, while the text type may be description, narration, exposition, argumentation, instruction or transaction.
  • Aspect – how readers engage with the text, which includes accessing and retrieving; integrating and interpreting; and reflecting and evaluating.

Separate proficiency scales are provided for print and digital reading respectively. Both describe achievement in terms of the task rather than the student.

The print reading scale has six levels (Level One is subdivided into two). The top levels are described as follows:

  • Level 6: Tasks at this level typically require the reader to make multiple inferences, comparisons and contrasts that are both detailed and precise. They require demonstration of a full and detailed understanding of one or more texts and may involve integrating information from more than one text. Tasks may require the reader to deal with unfamiliar ideas, in the presence of prominent competing information, and to generate abstract categories for interpretations. Reflect and evaluate tasks may require the reader to hypothesise about or critically evaluate a complex text on an unfamiliar topic, taking into account multiple criteria or perspectives, and applying sophisticated understandings from beyond the text. A salient condition for access and retrieve tasks at this level is precision of analysis and fine attention to detail that is inconspicuous in the texts.
  • Level 5: Tasks at this level that involve retrieving information require the reader to locate and organise several pieces of deeply embedded information, inferring which information in the text is relevant. Reflective tasks require critical evaluation or hypothesis, drawing on specialised knowledge. Both interpretative and reflective tasks require a full and detailed understanding of a text whose content or form is unfamiliar. For all aspects of reading, tasks at this level typically involve dealing with concepts that are contrary to expectations.

For digital reading there are only four levels, categorised as 2-5. Level 5 is described thus:

‘Tasks at this level typically require the reader to locate, analyse and critically evaluate information, related to an unfamiliar context, in the presence of ambiguity. They require generating criteria to evaluate the text. Tasks may require navigation across multiple sites without explicit direction, and detailed interrogation of texts in a variety of formats.’


Scientific literacy

Scientific literacy is defined as:

‘An individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.’

The domain consists of four interrelated aspects:

  • Context – life situations involving science and technology. Contexts are personal, social or global and may relate to health, natural resources, environment, hazard or the frontiers of science and technology.
  • Knowledge – knowledge of the natural world (covering physical systems, living systems, earth and space systems and technology systems) and knowledge about science itself (scientific enquiry and scientific explanations).
  • Competencies , of which  three are identified: identify scientific issues, explain phenomena scientifically and use scientific evidence.
  • Attitudes, including an interest in science, support for scientific enquiry and a motivation to act responsibly towards the natural world.

A 6-level proficiency scale is defined with the top levels explained as follows:

  • At Level 6, students can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.
  • At Level 5, students can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis.


Denham Sunset by Gifted Phoenix

Denham Sunset by Gifted Phoenix


 Changes in Average Performance in Reading, Maths and Science

The OECD published PISA outcomes for maths, science and reading on 3 December 2013.

Similarly, the PISA National Report on England, published simultaneously, covers the three core assessments.

This section looks briefly at the headline average scores and rankings across the selected sample of twelve jurisdictions, principally to enable comparisons to be drawn with the subsequent analysis of high achievers’ performance.

I apologise in advance for any transcription errors. Please let me know if you spot any and I will correct the tables accordingly.



Table 4 below gives the headline average numerical scores and ranks in reading from PISA 2006, 2009 and 2012 respectively.


Table 4

Country 2012 2009 2006
score rank score rank score rank
Australia 512↓ 13↓ 515↑ 9↓ 513 7
Canada 523↓ 8↓ 524↓ 6↓ 527 4
Finland 524↓ 6↓ 536↓ 3↓ 547 2
Hong Kong 545↑ 2↑ 533↓ 4↓ 536 3
Ireland 523↑ 7↑ 496↓ 21↓ 517 6
S Korea 536↓ 5↓ 539↓ 2↓ 556 1
New Zealand 512↓ 13↓ 521 7↓ 521 5
Shanghai 570↑ 1= 556 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 542↑ 3↑ 526 5 N/A N/A
Taiwan 523↑ 8↑ 495↓ 23↓ 496 16
UK (England) 500↑ 23↑ 495↓ 25↓ 496 17
US 498↓ 24↓ 500 17 N/A N/A
OECD Average 496↑ 493↓ 495


Shanghai has retained the ascendancy it established in 2009, adding a further 14 points to its average 2009 score. Whereas it was only 17 points beyond its nearest competitor in 2009, that lead has now been extended to 25 points.

South Korea’s performance has fallen slightly and it has been leapfrogged in the rankings by Hong Kong (up 12 points), Singapore (up 16 points), and Japan (not included in the table).

Two countries making even more significant improvements are Taiwan (up 28 points) and Ireland (up 27 points). Conversely, the performance of Finland (down 12 points) and New Zealand (down 9 points) has noticeably declined. Finland’s performance has been declining since 2006.

Results remain broadly unchanged in Australia, Canada, England, South Korea and the USA. South Korea has been unable to make up the ground it lost in 2009.

Ireland’s huge improvement from a very similar starting point in 2009 throws England’s lack of progress into sharper relief, although it is largely catching up lost ground in 2009, having performed relatively well in 2006.

England, like the US, continues to perform slightly above the OECD average, but has fallen further behind the Asian Tigers. The gap with the world’s leader in each assessment is now 70 points (up from 60 in 2006),



Table 5 below sets out scores and rankings in maths since PISA 2006


Table 5

Country 2012 2009 2006
  score rank score rank score rank
Australia 504↓ 19↓ 514↓ 15↓ 520 13
Canada 518↓ 13↓ 527= 10↓ 527 7
Finland 519↓ 12↓ 541↓ 6↓ 548 2
Hong Kong 561↑ 3= 555↑ 3 547 3
Ireland 501↑ 20↑ 487↓ 32↓ 501 22
S Korea 554↑ 5↓ 546↓ 4 547 4
New Zealand 500↓ 23↓ 519↓ 13↓ 522 11
Shanghai 613↑ 1= 600 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 573↑ 2= 562 2 N/A N?A
Taiwan 560↑ 4↑ 543↓ 5↓ 549 1
UK (England) 495↑ 25↑ 493↓ 27↓ 495 24
US 481↓ 36↓ 487↑ 31↑ 474 35
OECD Average 494↓   496↓   497  


The overall picture is rather similar to that for reading.

Shanghai (up 13 points) and Singapore (up 11 points) continue to stretch away at the head of the field. Taiwan (up 17 points) has also made significant improvement and is now close behind Hong Kong.

There has been relatively more modest improvement in Hong Kong and South Korea (which has been overtaken by Taiwan).

Elsewhere, Ireland has again made significant headway and is back to the level it achieved in 2006. But Finland’s score has plummeted 22 points. New Zealand is not far behind (down 19). There have also been significant falls in the performance of Australia (down 10) Canada (down 9) and the US (down 6).

The US is now trailing 13 points below the OECD average, having failed to sustain the substantial improvement it made in 2009.

In England meanwhile, results are largely unchanged, though now just above the OECD average rather than just below it.

The gap between England and world leader Shanghai has reached 118 points, compared with a gap in 2006 between England and world leader Taiwan of 54 points. The gap between England and its main Commonwealth competitors has narrowed, but only as a consequence of the significant declines in the latter.



Table 6 below provides the same data in respect of science.


Table 6

Country 2012 2009 2006
  score rank score rank score rank
Australia 521↓ 16↓ 527= 10↓ 527 8
Canada 525↓ 10↓ 529↓ 8↓ 534 3
Finland 545↓ 5↓ 554↓ 2↓ 563 1
Hong Kong 555↑ 2↑ 549↑ 3↓ 542 2
Ireland 522↑ 15↑ 508 20 508 20
S Korea 538= 7↓ 538↑ 6↑ 522 11
New Zealand 516↓ 18↓ 532↑ 7 530 7
Shanghai 580↑ 1= 575 1 N/A N/A
Singapore 551↑ 3↑ 542 4 N/A N/A
Taiwan 523↑ 13↓ 520↓ 12↓ 532 4
UK (England) 516↑ 18↓ 515↓ 16↓ 516 14
US 497↓ 28↓ 502↑ 23↑ 489 29
OECD Average 501=   501↑   498  


Shanghai is again out in front, having repeated the clean sweep it achieved in 2009.

However, it has managed only a 5-point improvement, while Taiwan has improved by 13 points and Singapore by 9 points. Hong Kong has moved up by 6 points and Taiwan by 3 points, but South Korea’s score is unchanged from 2009.

New Zealand has dropped by 16 points and Finland by 9 points compared with 2009. There have been comparatively smaller declines in Australia and Canada, while Ireland has once again improved dramatically, by 14 points, and – in this case – the improvement is not simply clawing back ground lost in 2009.

England remains comfortably above the OECD average, but has made negligible improvement since 2006. US performance has dropped back below the OECD average as it has lost some of the ground it made up in 2009.

The gap between England and the world leaders is comparable with that in maths and significantly lower than in reading. The gap is now 64 points, compared with just 47 points in 2006.



Overall, the Asian Tigers have consolidated their positions by maintaining improvement in all three domains, though South Korea appears to be struggling to maintain the success of earlier years.

Finland and New Zealand are in worrying decline while Ireland is making rapid progress in the opposite direction.



The US results are stagnant, remaining comparatively poor, particularly in maths.

England has broadly maintained its existing performance profile, neither improving nor declining significantly. But, it is conspicuously losing ground on the world leaders, especially in maths. Other than in science it is close to the OECD average.

There is nothing here to give comfort to either the previous Government or the present incumbents. There might be some limited relief – even a degree of shadenfreude – in the fact that several better-placed nations are falling back more severely. But of course one cannot win the ‘global race’ by simply standing still.


Floral by Gifted Phoenix

Floral by Gifted Phoenix


Changes in High Achievers’ Performance

So much for the average headline figures.

The remainder of this post is focused on  high achievement data. The ensuing sections once more examine reading, maths and science in that order, followed by a section on all-rounders.



Table 7 shows how the percentage achieving higher levels in reading has changed since PISA 2006, providing separate columns for Level 6 and above level 5 respectively (there was no Level 6 in 2006)..


Table 7

Country 2012 2009 2006
Level 6 Levels 5 and 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 5
Australia 1.9 11.7 2.1 12.8 10.6
Canada 2.1 12.9 1.8 12.8 14.5
Finland 2.2 13.5 1.6 14.5 16.7
Hong Kong 1.9 16.8 1.2 12.4 12.8
Ireland 1.3 11.4 0.7 7.0 11.7
S Korea 1.6 14.2 1.0 12.9 21.7
New Zealand 3.0 13.9 2.9 15.8 15.9
Shanghai 3.8 25.1 2.4 19.4 N/A
Singapore 5.0 21.2 2.6 15.7 N/A
Taiwan 1.4 11.8 0.4 5.2 4.7
UK (England) 1.3 9.1 1.0 8.1 9.2
US 1.0 7.9 1.5 9.9 N/A
OECD Average 1.1 8.4 1.0 7.0 8.6


This reveals that:

  • In 2012, Singapore has a clear lead on its competitors at Level 6, but it is overtaken by Shanghai at Level 5 and above. New Zealand also remains comparatively strong at Level 6, but falls back significantly when Levels 5 and 6 are combined.
  • The other Asian Tigers do not perform outstandingly well at Level 6: Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan are all below 2.0%, behind Canada and Finland. However, all but Taiwan outscore their competitors when Levels 5 and 6 are combined.
  • Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan are all making fairly strong progress over time. Patterns are rather less discernible for other countries, though there is a downward trend in the US.
  • In Finland, New Zealand and Canada – countries that seem to be falling back overall – the percentage of Level 6 readers continues to improve. This might suggest that the proportion of the highest performers in reading is not significantly affected when national performance begins to slide.
  • When judged against these world leaders, England’s comparative performance is brought into much clearer perspective. At Level 6 it is not far behind Taiwan, South Korea and even Hong Kong. But, at Level 5 and above, the gap is somewhat more pronounced. England is improving, but very slowly.
  • The comparison with Taiwan is particularly stark. In 2006, England had roughly twice as many students performing at Level 5. By 2009 Taiwan had caught up some of this ground and, by 2012, it had overtaken.

Table 8 compares changes since PISA 2006 in national performance at Level 5 and above with changes at Level 1 and below.

This is intended to reveal the balance between top and bottom – and whether this sample of world-leading and other English-speaking jurisdictions is making consistent progress at either end of the spectrum.


 Table 8

Country Levels 5 (and 6 from 2009) Level 1 (or equivalent) and below
2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 10.6 12.8 11.7 13.4 14.3 14.2
Canada 14.5 12.8 12.9 11.0 10.3 10.9
Finland 16.7 14.5 13.5 4.8 8.1 11.3
Hong Kong 12.8 12.4 16.8 7.2 8.3 6.8
Ireland 11.7 7.0 11.4 12.2 17.2 9.7
S Korea 21.7 12.9 14.2 5.7 5.8 7.6
New Zealand 15.9 15.8 13.9 14.6 14.3 16.3
Shanghai N/A 19.4 25.1 N/A 4.1 2.9
Singapore N/A 15.7 21.2 N/A 12.4 9.9
Taiwan 4.7 5.2 11.8 14.3 15.6 11.5
UK (England) 9.2 8.1 9.1 18.9 18.4 16.7
US N/A 9.9 7.9 N/A 17.7 16.7
OECD Average 8.6 7.0 8.4 20.1 18.8 18


We can see that:

  • The countries with the highest proportion of students at Level 5 and above tend to have the lowest proportion at Level 1 and below. In Shanghai in 2012, there is a 22% percentage point gap between these two populations and fewer than 3 in every hundred fall into the lower attaining group.
  • Singapore is much closer to Shanghai at the top end than it is at the bottom. But even Shanghai seems to be making faster progress at the top than at the bottom, which might suggest that it is approaching the point at which the proportion of low achievers cannot be further reduced.
  • Compared with Hong Kong and South Korea, Singapore has a higher proportion of both high achievers and low achievers.
  • Whereas Taiwan had three times as many low achievers as high achievers in 2006, by 2012 the proportions were broadly similar, but progress at the top end is much faster than at the bottom.
  • The decline in Finland has less to do with performance at the top end (which has fallen by three percentage points) than with performance at the bottom (which has increased by more than six percentage points).
  • Canada has consistently maintained a higher percentage of high achievers than low achievers, but the reverse is true in Australia. In New Zealand the percentage at the top is declining and the percentage at the bottom is increasing. The gap between the two has narrowed slightly in England, but not significantly so.
  • To catch up with Shanghai, England has to close a gap of some 16 percentage points at the top end, compared with one of around 14 percentage points at the bottom.

The PISA National Report on England offers some additional analysis, noting that 18 jurisdictions had a higher proportion of pupils than England at Level 5 or above in 2012, including all those that outperformed England overall (with the exception of Estonia and Macao), and also France and Norway.

The National Report relies more heavily on comparing the performance of learners at the 5th and 95th percentiles in each country, arguing that:

‘This is a better measure for comparing countries than using the lowest and highest scoring pupils, as such a comparison may be affected by a small number of pupils in a country with unusually high or low scores.’

This is true in the sense that a minimum sample of 4,500 PISA participants would result in fewer than 100 at Level 6 in many jurisdictions.

On the other hand, the National Report fails to point out that analysis on this basis is not particularly informative about comparative achievement of the criterion-referenced standards denoted by the PISA thresholds.

It says rather more about the spread of performance in each country and rather less about direct international comparisons.

Key points include:

  • In England the score of learners at the 5th percentile was 328, compared with 652 at the 95th percentile. This difference of 324 points is slightly larger than the OECD average difference of 310 points. More than two-thirds of OECD countries had a smaller difference between these percentiles.
  • Compared with PISA 2012, the score of high achievers at the 95th percentile in PISA 2009 increased by six points to 652, while the score of low achievers at the 5th percentile fell by six points to 328. This increase in the attainment gap is higher than in 2009 (312) but lower than in 2006 (337). Thirteen OECD countries reported a wider spread of attainment than England.
  • Of countries outperforming England, only Japan (325 points), Singapore (329 points) Belgium (339 points) and New Zealand (347 points) demonstrated a similar or wider spread of attainment. Shanghai had the lowest difference (259 points) followed by Estonia (263).
  • The strongest performing jurisdictions at the 95th percentile were Singapore (698), Shanghai (690) and Japan (689), compared with 652 for England.
  • Amongst jurisdictions ranked higher than England, only the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Estonia and Macao secured a lower score at the 95th percentile. Only Belgium reported a lower score at the 5th percentile.



Turning to maths, Table 9 illustrates changes in the pattern of high achievement since 2006, again showing the percentages performing at Level 6 and above Level 5 respectively.


Table 9

Country 2012 2009 2006
  Level 6 Levels 5 + 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6
Australia 4.3 14.8 4.5 16.4 4.3 16.4
Canada 4.3 16.4 4.4 18.3 4.4 18
Finland 3.5 15.2 4.9 21.6 6.3 24.4
Hong Kong 12.3 33.4 10.8 30.7 9 27.7
Ireland 2.2 10.7 0.9 6.7 1.6 10.2
S Korea 12.1 30.9 7.8 25.5 9.1 27.1
New Zealand 4.5 15.0 5.3 18.9 5.7 18.9
Shanghai 30.8 55.4 26.6 50.7 N/A N/A
Singapore 19.0 40.0 15.6 35.6 N/A N/A
Taiwan 18.0 37.2 11.3 28.5 11.8 31.9
UK (England) 3.1 12.4 1.7 9.9 2.5 11.2
US 2.2 9.0 1.9 9.9 1.3 7.7
Average 3.3 12.6 3.1 12.7 3.3 13.4


The variations between countries tend to be far more pronounced than in reading:

  • There is a huge 28 percentage point spread in performance at Level 6 within this sample – from 2% to 30% – compared with a three percentage point spread in reading. The spread at Level 5 and above is also significantly larger – 46 percentage points compared with 17 percentage points in reading.
  • Shanghai has an 11 percentage point lead over its nearest competitor at Level 6 and an even larger 15 percentage point lead for Level 5 and above. Moreover it has improved significantly on both counts since 2009. Well over half its sample is now performing at Level 5 or above and almost a third are at Level 6.
  • Singapore and Taiwan are the next best performers, both relatively close together. Both are improving but, following a small dip in 2009, Taiwan is improving at a faster rate – faster even than Shanghai.
  • Hong Kong and South Korea also have similar 2012 profiles, as they did back in 2006. South Korea also lost ground in 2009, but is now improving at a faster rate than Hong Kong.
  • Finland appears to be experiencing quite significant decline: the proportion of Level 6 performers in 2012 is not far short of half what it was in 2006 and performance above Level 5 has fallen by more than nine percentage points. This is a somewhat different pattern to reading, in that the top performers are also suffering from the overall decline.



  • Australia, Canada and New Zealand have maintained broadly the same performance over time, though all are showing a slight falling off at Level 5 and above, and in New Zealand this also applies at Level 6.
  • After a serious slump in 2006, Ireland has overtaken its 2006 position. Meanwhile, the US has been making some progress at Level 6 but is less convincing at Level 5 and above.
  • Once again, this comparison does not particularly flatter England. It is not too far behind the Commonwealth countries and declining Finland at Level 6 but the gap is slightly larger at Level 5 and above. That said, England has consistently performed below the OECD average and remains in that position.
  • There are, however, some grounds for domestic celebration, in that England has improved by 2.5% at Level 5 and above, and by 1.4% at Level 6. This rate of improvement bears comparison with Hong Kong, albeit from a much lower base. It suggests a narrowing gap between England and its Commonwealth counterparts.

Table 10 gives the comparison with achievement at the bottom end of the distribution, setting out the percentages performing at different levels.


Table 10

Country Levels 5 and 6 Level 1 and below
  2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 16.4 16.4 14.8 13.0 15.9 18.6
Canada 18 18.3 16.4 10.8 11.4 13.8
Finland 24.4 21.6 15.2 5.9 7.8 12.2
Hong Kong 27.7 30.7 33.4 9.5 8.8 8.5
Ireland 10.2 6.7 10.7 16.4 20.9 16.9
S Korea 27.1 25.5 30.9 8.8 8.1 9.1
New Zealand 18.9 18.9 15.0 14.0 15.5 22.6
Shanghai N/A 50.7 55.4 N/A 4.8 3.7
Singapore N/A 35.6 40.0 N/A 9.8 8.3
Taiwan 31.9 28.5 37.2 11.9 12.8 12.8
UK (England) 11.2 9.9 12.4 19.9 19.8 21.7
US 7.7 9.9 9.0 28.1 23.4 25.9
Average 13.4 12.7 12.6 21.3 22.0 23.0


Key points include:

  • The same pattern is discernible amongst the strongest performers as was evident with reading: those with the highest percentages at the top end tend to have the lowest percentages at the bottom. If anything this distinction is even more pronounced. Shanghai records a 52 percentage point gap between its highest and lowest performers and the latter group is only slightly larger than the comparable group in the reading assessment.
  • Amongst the Asian Tigers, the ratio between top and bottom is at least 3:1 in favour of the top. For most of the other countries in the sample, there is never more than a 7 percentage point gap between top and bottom, but this stretches to 9 in the case of England and 13 for the USA. Needless to say, the low achievers are in the majority in both cases.
  • Although the percentages for top and bottom in Australia are broadly comparable, it has shifted since 2006 from a position where the top end was in the majority by 3 percentage points to almost a mirror image of that pattern. In New Zealand, the lower achievers have increased by almost 9 percentage points, almost double the rate of decline at the top end, as their ‘long tail’ grows significantly longer.
  • Apart from Shanghai, only Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea have fewer than 10% in the lower performing category. Despite its reputation as a meritocratic environment, Singapore gets much closer to Shanghai at the bottom of the distribution than it does at the top. The same is true of Hong Kong and South Korea.
  • It is also noticeable that none of the Tigers is making extraordinary progress at the bottom end. Hong Kong has reduced this population by 1% since 2003, Singapore by 1.5% since 2006, Shanghai by only 0.9% since 2006. The percentage has increased in South Korea and Taiwan. Improvement has been significantly stronger at the top of the distribution. Again this might suggest that the Tigers are closing in on the point where they cannot improve further at the bottom end.
  • In Finland, the percentage achieving the higher levels has fallen by over 9 percentage points since 2006, while the increase at the lower levels is over 6 percentage points. This compares with a 3 point fall at the top and a 6 point rise at the bottom in reading. The slump amongst Finland’s high achievers is clearly more pronounced in maths.
  • England’s 9.3 percentage point gap between the top and bottom groups in 2012 is lightly larger than the 8.7 point gap in 2006. It has a whopping 43 percentage point gap to make up on Shanghai at the top end, and an 18 point gap at the bottom. England is just on the right side of the OECD average at the bottom and just on the wrong side at the top.



The National Report notes that all jurisdictions ahead of England in the rankings had a higher percentage of learners at Level 5 or above.

As for percentiles

  • The difference between the 5th percentile (335 points) and the 95th percentile (652 points) was 316 in England. The average difference for OECD countries was 301, only slightly lower than that.
  • Ten countries had a greater difference than this, five of them amongst those the highest overall mean scores. Others were Israel, Belgium, Slovakia, New Zealand and France.
  • Whereas the difference between the lowest and highest percentiles has increased very slightly across all OECD countries, this is more pronounced in England, increasing from 285 points in 2009 to 316 points in 2012. This is attributable to decreasing scores at the 5th percentile (350 in 2006, 349 in 2009 and 335 in 2012) compared with changes at the 95th percentile (643 in 2006, 634 in 2009 and 652 in 2012).



Table 11 compares the performance of this sample of PISA participants at the higher levels in the science assessment on the last three occasions.


Table 11

Country 2012 2009 2006
  Level 6 Levels 5 + 6 Level 6 Levels 5+6 Level 6 Levels 5+6
Australia 2.6 13.5 3.1 14.6 2.8 14.6
Canada 1.8 11.3 1.6 12.1 2.4 14.4
Finland 3.2 17.1 3.3 18.7 3.9 20.9
Hong Kong 1.8 16.7 2 16.2 2.1 15.9
Ireland 1.5 10.8 1.2 8.7 1.1 9.4
S Korea 1.1 11.7 1.1 11.6 1.1 10.3
New Zealand 2.7 13.4 3.6 17.6 4 17.6
Shanghai 4.2 27.2 3.9 24.3 N/A N/A
Singapore 5.8 22.7 4.6 19.9 N/A N/A
Taiwan 0.6 8.4 0.8 8.8 1.7 14.6
UK (England) 1.9 11.7 1.9 11.6 3.0 14.0
US 1.1 7.4 1.3 9.2 1.5 9.1
Average 1.2 8.4 1.1 8.5 1.3 8.8


In science, the pattern of high achievement has more in common with reading than maths. It shows that:

  • There is again a relatively narrow spread of performance between this sample of jurisdictions – approaching five percentage points at Level 6 and 20 percentage points at Level 5 and above.
  • As in reading, Singapore outscores Shanghai at the top level 6, but is outperformed by Shanghai at Level 5 and above. Both are showing steady improvement, but Singapore’s improvement at Level 6 is more pronounced than Shanghai’s.
  • Finland remains the third best performer, although the proportion of learners achieving at both Level 6 and Level 5 plus has been declining slightly since 2006.
  • Another similarity with reading is that Australia, Finland and New Zealand all perform significantly better at Level 6 than Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. Hong Kong alone performs equally well at Level 5 and above. None of these three Asian Tigers has made significant progress since 2006.
  • In Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US there has also been relatively little progress over time – indeed some evidence to suggest a slight decline. Conversely, Ireland seems to be moving forward again after a slight dip at Level 5 and above in 2009.



  • England was a strong performer in 2006, broadly comparable with many of its competitors. But it fell back significantly in 2009 and has made no progress since then. The proportions are holding up but there is no substantive improvement since 2009, unlike in maths and (to a lesser extent) reading. However England continues to perform somewhat higher than the OECD average. There is an interesting parallel with Taiwan, although that country dipped even further than England in 2009.

Table 12 provides the comparison with the proportions achieving the lower thresholds.


Table 12

Country Levels 5 and 6 Levels 1 and Below
  2006 2009 2012 2006 2009 2012
Australia 14.6 14.6 13.5 12.8 12.6 13.6
Canada 14.4 12.1 11.3 10.0 9.5 10.4
Finland 20.9 18.7 17.1 4.1 6.0 7.7
Hong Kong 15.9 16.2 16.7 8.7 6.6 5.6
Ireland 9.4 8.7 10.8 15.5 15.1 11.1
S Korea 10.3 11.6 11.7 11.2 6.3 6.7
New Zealand 17.6 17.6 13.4 13.7 13.4 16.3
Shanghai N/A 24.3 27.2 N/A 3.2 2.7
Singapore N/A 19.9 22.7 N/A 11.5 9.6
Taiwan 14.6 8.8 8.4 11.6 11.1 9.8
UK (England) 14.0 11.6 11.7 16.7 14.8 14.9
US 9.1 9.2 7.4 24.4 18.1 18.2
Average 8.8 8.5 8.4 19.3 18.0 17.8


  • Amongst the top performers the familiar pattern reappears. In 2012 Shanghai has 27% in the top categories against 2.7% in the bottom categories. This is very similar to reading (25.1% against 2.9%). At the bottom end, Shanghai’s nearest competitors are Hong Kong and South Korea, while Singapore and Taiwan are each approaching 10% at these levels. This is another similarity with reading (whereas, in maths, Singapore is more competitive at the lower end).
  • Since 2009, Shanghai has managed only a comparatively modest 0.5% reduction in the proportion of its students at the bottom end, compared with an increase of almost 3% at the top end. This may lend further support to the hypothesis that it is approaching the point at which further bottom end improvement is impossible.
  • No country has made consistently strong progress at the bottom end, though Ireland has made a significant improvement since 2009. There has been steady if unspectacular improvement in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. South Korea, having achieved a major improvement in 2009 has found itself unable to continue this positive trend.
  • Finland’s negative trend is consistent since 2006 at both ends of the achievement spectrum, though the decline is not nearly as pronounced as in maths. In science Finland is maintaining a ratio of 2:1 in favour of the performers at the top end, while percentages at top and bottom are now much closer together in both reading and maths.
  • There are broadly similar negative trends at top and bottom alike in the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, although they have fallen back in fits and starts. In New Zealand the balance between top and bottom has shifted from being 4 percentage points in favour of the top end in 2006, to 3 percentage points in favour of the bottom end by 2012.
  • A similar gap in favour of lower achievers also exists in England and is unchanged from 2009. By comparison with the US (which is a virtual mirror image of the top-bottom balance in Finland, Singapore or South Korea) it is in a reasonable position, rather similar to New Zealand, now that it has fallen back.
  • England has a 1.5 percentage point gap to make up on Shanghai at the top end of the distribution, compared with a 12.2 percentage point gap at the bottom.

The PISA 2012 National Study reports that only the handful of jurisdictions shown in Table 11 above has a larger percentage of learners achieving Level 6. Conversely, England has a relatively large number of low achievers compared with these jurisdictions.

Rather tenuously, it argues on this basis that:

‘Raising the attainment of lower achievers would be an important step towards improving England’s performance and narrowing the gap between highest and lowest performers.’

When it comes to comparison of the 5th and 95th percentiles:

  • The score at the 5th percentile (343) and at the 95th percentile (674) gives a difference of 331 points, larger than the OECD average of 304 points. Only eight jurisdictions had a wider distribution: Israel, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Belgium, Singapore and Bulgaria.
  • The OECD average difference between the 5th and 95th percentiles has reduced slightly (from 311 in 2006 to 304 in 2012) and there has also been relatively little change in England.


Top-Performing All-Rounders

Volume 1 of the OECD’s ‘PISA 2012 Results’ document provides additional data about all-round top performers achieving Level 5 or above in each of the three domains.


PISA 2012 top performers Capture.

The diagram shows that 4.4% of learners across OECD countries achieve this feat.

This is up 0.3% on the PISA 2009 figure revealed in this PISA in Focus publication.

Performance on this measure in 2012, compared with 2009, amongst the sample of twelve jurisdictions is shown in the following Table 13. (NB that the UK figure is for the UK combined, not just England).


Table 13

2012 2009
%age rank %age rank
Australia 7.6 7 8.1 6
Canada 6.5 9 6.8 8
Finland 7.4 8 8.5 4
Hong Kong 10.9 4 8.4 5
Ireland 5.7 15 3.2 23
S Korea 8.1 5 7.2 7
New Zealand 8.0 6 9.9 3
Shanghai 19.6 1 14.6 1
Singapore 16.4 2 12.3 2
Taiwan 6.1 10 3.9 17
UK 5.7 15 4.6 14
US 4.7 18 5.2 11
Average 4.4 4.1


In terms of percentage increases, the fastest progress on this measure is being made by Hong Kong, Ireland, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan. Shanghai has improved a full five percentage points and one in five of its students now achieve this benchmark.

The UK is making decent progress, particularly compared with Australia, Canada, Finland New Zealand and the US, which are moving in the opposite direction.

The Report notes:

‘Among countries with similar mean scores in PISA, there are remarkable differences in the percentage of top-performing students. For example, Denmark has a mean score of 500 points in mathematics in PISA 2012 and 10% of students perform at high proficiency levels in mathematics, which is less than the average of around 13%. New Zealand has a similar mean mathematics score of 500 points, but 15% of its students attain the highest levels of proficiency, which is above the average…these results could signal the absence of a highly educated talent pool for the future.

Having a large proportion of top performers in one subject is no guarantee of having a large proportion of top performers in the others. For example, Switzerland has one of the 10 largest shares of top performers in mathematics, but only a slightly-above-average share of top performers in reading and science.

Across the three subjects and across all countries, girls are as likely to be top performers as boys. On average across OECD countries, 4.6% of girls and 4.3% of boys are top performers in all three subjects…To increase the share of top-performing students, countries and economies need to look at the barriers posed by social background…the relationship between performance and students’… and schools’ organisation, resources and learning environment.’ (p65)


Denizen by Gifted Phoenix

Denizen by Gifted Phoenix



Priorities for Different Countries

On the basis of this evidence, it is possible to draw up a profile of the performance of different countries across the three assessments at these higher levels, and so make a judgement about the prospects in each of ‘a highly educated talent pool for the future’. The twelve jurisdictions in our sample might be advised as follows:

  • Shanghai should be focused on establishing ascendancy at Level 6 in reading and science, particularly if there is substance to the suspicion that scope for improvement at the bottom of the spectrum is now rather limited. Certainly it is likely to be easier to effect further improvement at the very top.
  • Singapore has some ground to catch up with Shanghai at Level 6 in maths. It has narrowed that gap by three percentage points since 2009, but there is still some way to go. Otherwise it should concentrate on strengthening its position above Level 5, where Shanghai is also conspicuously stronger.
  • Hong Kong needs to focus on Level 6 in reading and science, but perhaps also in maths where it has been extensively outpaced by Taiwan since 2009. At levels 5 and above it faces strong pressure to maintain proximity with Shanghai and Singapore, as well as marking the charge made by Taiwan in reading and maths. Progress in science is relatively slow.
  • South Korea should also pay attention to Level 6 in reading and science. It is improving faster than Hong Kong at Level 6 in maths but is also losing ground on Taiwan. That said, although South Korea now seems back on track at Level 5 and above in maths, but progress remains comparatively slow in reading and science, so both Levels 5 and 6 need attention.
  • Taiwan has strong improvement in reading and maths since 2009, but is deteriorating in science at both Levels 5 and 6. It still has much ground to pick up at Level 6 in reading. Its profile is not wildly out of kilter with Hong Kong and South Korea.
  • Finland is bucking a downward trend at Level 6 in reading and slipping only slightly in science, so the more noticeable decline is in maths. However, the ground lost is proportionately greater at Level 5 and above, once again more prominently in maths. As Finland fights to stem a decline at the lower achievement levels, it must take care not to neglect those at the top.
  • Australia seems to be slipping back at both Levels 5 and 6 across all three assessments, while also struggling at the bottom end. There are no particularly glaring weaknesses, but it needs to raise its game across the board.
  • Canada is just about holding its own at Level 6, but performance is sliding back at Level 5 and above across all three domains. This coincides with relatively little improvement and some falling back at the lower end of the achievement distribution. It faces a similar challenge to Finland’s although not so pronounced.
  • New Zealand can point to few bright points in an otherwise gloomy picture, one of which is that Level 6 performance is holding up in reading. Elsewhere, there is little to celebrate in terms of high achievers’ performance. New Zealand is another country that, in tackling more serious problems with the ‘long tail’, should not take its eye off the ball at the top.



  • The US is also doing comparatively well in reading at Level 6, but is otherwise either treading water or slipping back a little. Both Level 6 and Level 5 and above need attention. The gap between it and the world’s leading countries continues to increase, suggesting that it faces future ‘talent pool’ issues unless it can turn round its performance.
  • Ireland is a good news story, at the top end as much as the bottom. It has caught up lost ground and is beginning to push beyond where it was in 2006. Given Ireland’s proximity, the home countries might want to understand more clearly why their nearest neighbour is improving at a significantly faster rate. That said, Ireland has significant room for improvement at both Level 6 and Level 5 and above.
  • England’s performance at Level 6 and Level 5 and above has held up surprisingly well compared with 2009, especially in maths. When the comparison is solely historical, there might appear to be no real issue. But many other countries are improving at a much stronger rate and so England (as well as the other home countries) risks being left behind in the ‘global race’ declared by its Prime Minister. The world leaders now manage three times as many Level 6 performers in science, four times as many in reading and ten times as many in maths. It must withstand the siren voices urging it to focus disproportionately at the bottom end.


Addressing These Priorities

It is far more straightforward to pinpoint these different profiles and priorities than to recommend convincingly how they should be addressed.

The present UK Government believes firmly that its existing policy direction will deliver the improvements that will significantly strengthen its international competiveness, as judged by PISA outcomes. It argues that it has learned these lessons from careful study of the world’s leading performers and is applying them carefully and rigorously, with due attention to national needs and circumstances.



But – the argument continues – it is too soon to see the benefits of its reforms in PISA 2012, such is the extended lag time involved in improving the educational outcomes of 15 year-olds. According to this logic, the next Government will reap the significant benefits of the present Government’s reform programme, as revealed by PISA 2015.

Recent history suggests that this prediction must be grounded more in hope than expectation, not least because establishing causation between indirect policy interventions and improved test performance must surely be the weakest link in the PISA methodology.

But, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, we might reasonably conclude that any bright spots in England’s performance are attributable to interventions that the previous Government got right between five and ten years ago. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the respectable progress made at the top PISA benchmarks is at least partly attributable to the national investment in gifted education during that period.

We might extend this argument by suggesting a similar relationship between progress in several of the Asian Tigers at these higher levels and their parallel investment in gifted education. Previous posts have drawn attention to the major programmes that continue to thrive in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

Shanghai might have reached the point where success in mainstream education renders investment in gifted education unnecessary. On the other hand, such a programme might help it to push forward at the top in reading and science – perhaps the only conspicuous chink in its armour. There are lessons to be learned from Singapore. (Gifted education is by no means dormant on the Chinese Mainland and there are influential voices pressing the national government to introduce more substantive reforms.)

Countries like Finland might also give serious consideration to more substantive investment in gifted education geared to strengthening high attainment in these core domains. There is increasingly evidence that the Finns need to rethink their approach.



The relationship between international comparisons studies like PISA and national investment in gifted education remains poorly researched and poorly understood, particularly how national programmes can most effectively be aligned with and support such assessments.

The global gifted education community might derive some much-needed purpose and direction by establishing an international study group to investigate this issue, providing concrete advice and support to governments with an interest.



December 2013

The Performance of Gifted High Achievers in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA


This post examines the comparative performance of high achievers in recent international comparisons studies, principally the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS assessments.

More specifically, it compares:

  • The proportion of learners in selected countries who achieve the highest ‘advanced’ benchmarks in TIMSS 2011 maths and science assessments at Grades 4 and 8 respectively and in the PIRLS 2011 reading assessment at Grade 4;
  • How selected countries have performed on each of these measures over the period in which TIMSS and PIRLS have been administered, identifying positive and negative trends and drawing inferences about current relative priorities in different countries;
  • Selected countries’ overall ranking on each of these TIMSS and PIRLS assessments (based on the average score achieved across all learners undertaking the appropriate assessment), contrasted with their ranking for the proportion of learners achieving the highest ‘advanced’ and the lowest ‘low’ benchmarks, considering the associated implications for their national education policies; and
  • The results from TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 with those from PISA 2009, exploring whether these different studies provide a consistent picture of countries’ relative strength in educating their highest achievers and, to the extent that there are inconsistencies, how those might be explained.

The post also reviews recent publications and speeches about England’s performance in TIMSS and PIRLS 2011, with a particular focus on the aspects set out above and the high achievers’ perspective. Finally, it draws together some significant recent contributions which ask interesting questions about the nature of these assessments and their outcomes.

This is therefore a companion piece to my December 2010 post ‘PISA 2009: International Comparisons of Gifted High Achievers’ Performance’.

There is limited reference within it to the relative strengths and weaknesses of international comparisons studies of this kind. Some time ago I published the first part of a separate post on that subject.

For the purposes of this publication my pragmatic assumption is that, while such studies have significant shortcomings and should on no account be used as the sole source of evidence for educational policy-making, they do provide useful steers which, when combined with other sources of quantitative and qualitative evidence, can offer a useful guide to current strengths and weaknesses and potential future priorities.

This is therefore a ‘health warning’: some of my conclusions below do need to be treated with a degree of caution. They are broad indicators rather than incontrovertible statements of fact.



History and Development of TIMSS and PIRLS Assessments

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has provided assessments of national achievement in these subjects since 1995, focused principally on two cohorts: Grade 4 (age 9/10) and Grade 8 (age 13/14).

Its companion exercise, the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) was introduced in 2001 to assess reading comprehension at Grade 4.

There is a parallel TIMSS Advanced assessment of maths and physics achievement in the final year of secondary school. This was undertaken in 1995 and 2008 and is scheduled for 2015. A less difficult PrePIRLS study, providing assessment for those not yet reading confidently, was introduced for the first time in 2011.

The main TIMSS assessment has been repeated on a four-year cycle and PIRLS on a 5-year cycle making 2011 the first year in which both studies were conducted together.

  • In 1995, TIMSS was undertaken for the first time, featuring assessment at five different Grades (3,4.7,8 and the final year of secondary education through the Advanced study). Altogether there were forty-five participating countries.
  • In 1999 TIMSS was repeated at Grade 8 only, with thirty-eight countries participating, twenty-six of them participants in the original 1995 cycle.
  • In 2003 the number of TIMSS participants increased to forty-nine, all but one of which undertook the Grade 8 assessments (though only twenty-six completed the Grade 4 assessments).

TIMSS 2011 lists sixty-three and PIRLS 2011 lists forty-eight participating countries (I have excluded from these figures those countries and parts of countries participating solely for benchmarking purposes.) Altogether though, around 600,000 learners participated in TIMSS and about half as many in PIRLS.


Assessment Frameworks and Benchmarks

The separate assessment frameworks for Maths and Science within TIMSS are similarly constructed. There is

  • A Grade-specific content dimension specifying the subject matter to be assessed eg algebra, physics, geometry, chemistry; and
  • A cognitive dimension, capturing the knowing, applying and reasoning processes that are deployed by the learner.

The assessment framework for reading within PIRLS is slightly different. The focus of the assessment is described as ‘reading literacy’, defined thus:

‘The ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual. Young readers can construct meaning from a variety of texts. They read to learn, to participate in communities of readers in school and everyday life, and for enjoyment.’

Two principal aspects are assessed:

  • Two purposes for reading – for literary experience and to acquire and use information; and
  • Four comprehension processes – focus on and retrieve explicitly stated information; make straightforward inferences; interpret and integrate ideas and information; and examine and evaluate content, language and textual elements.

Both TIMSS and PIRLS use achievement scales with a range from 0-1000, though most learners score between 300 and 700 and 500 – the midpoint of the scales – remains constant across different cycles, so trend-related data is relatively reliable.

Four points on this scale are specified as international benchmarks: Advanced at 625, High at 550, Intermediate at 475 and Low at 400. These benchmarks are defined differently for each subject and Grade.

The Advanced benchmark definitions are as follows:

  • Maths Grade 4:

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a variety of relatively complex situations and explain their reasoning. They can solve a variety of multi-step word problems involving whole numbers, including proportions. Students at this level show an increasing understanding of fractions and decimals. Students can apply geometric knowledge of a range of two- and three-dimensional shapes in a variety of situations. They can draw a conclusion from data in a table and justify their conclusion.’

  • Science Grade 4:

Students apply knowledge and understanding of scientific processes and relationships and show some knowledge of the process of scientific inquiry. Students communicate their understanding of characteristics and life processes of organisms, reproduction and development, ecosystems and organisms’ interactions with the environment, and factors relating to human health. They demonstrate understanding of properties of light and relationships among physical properties of materials, apply and communicate their understanding of electricity and energy in practical contexts, and demonstrate an understanding of magnetic and gravitational forces and motion. Students communicate their understanding of the solar system and of Earth’s structure, physical characteristics, resources, processes, cycles, and history. They have a beginning ability to interpret results in the context of a simple experiment, reason and draw conclusions from descriptions and diagrams, and evaluate and support an argument.’

  • Reading Grade 4:

‘When reading Literary Texts, students can:

    • Integrate ideas and evidence across a text to appreciate overall themes
    • Interpret story events and character actions to provide reasons, motivations, feelings, and character traits with full text-based support

When reading Informational Texts, students can:

    • Distinguish and interpret complex information from different parts of text, and provide full text-based support
    • Integrate information across a text to provide explanations, interpret significance, and sequence activities
    • Evaluate visual and textual features to explain their function.’
  • Maths Grade 8:

‘Students can reason with information, draw conclusions, make generalizations, and solve linear equations. Students can solve a variety of fraction, proportion, and percent problems and justify their conclusions. Students can express generalisations algebraically and model situations. They can solve a variety of problems involving equations, formulas, and functions. Students can reason with geometric figures to solve problems. Students can reason with data from several sources or unfamiliar representations to solve multi-step problems.

  • Science Grade 8:

‘Students communicate an understanding of complex and abstract concepts in biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. Students demonstrate some conceptual knowledge about cells and the characteristics, classification, and life processes of organisms. They communicate an understanding of the complexity of ecosystems and adaptations of organisms, and apply an understanding of life cycles and heredity. Students also communicate an understanding of the structure of matter and physical and chemical properties and changes and apply knowledge of forces, pressure, motion, sound, and light. They reason about electrical circuits and properties of magnets. Students apply knowledge and communicate understanding of the solar system and Earth’s processes, structures, and physical features.  They understand basic features of scientific investigation. They also combine information from several sources to solve problems and draw conclusions, and they provide written explanations to communicate scientific knowledge.’

TIMSS courtesy of Toujia Elementary School in Taiwan

Taiwanese Learners Tackle TIMSS courtesy of Toujia Elementary School


PISA Frameworks and Benchmarks

PISA is a triennial study of 15 year-olds’ performance (so Grade 9) also in maths, science and reading. A different subject is the main focus in each cycle – in 2009 it was reading. Sixty-five countries took part in PISA 2009.

There is significant overlap with TIMSS/PIRLS participants – some 40 countries involved in TIMSS 2011 also undertook PISA 2009 – but a significant proportion of countries undertake one or the other.

My previous post sets out the definitions of Reading, Mathematical and Scientific Literacy used in the PISA 2009 study and I will not repeat them here.

PISA divides student performance into six different proficiency levels. The highest (Level 6) are defined in terms of the tasks which learners successfully perform, or the skills and competences they must display.

It is interesting to compare the emphases in these descriptions with those in the parallel TIMSS/PIRLS definitions above.

  • In reading, Level 6 tasks:

 ‘typically require the reader to make multiple inferences, comparisons and contrasts that are both detailed and precise. They require demonstration of a full and detailed understanding of one or more texts and may involve integrating information from more than one text. Tasks may require the reader to deal with unfamiliar ideas, in the presence of prominent competing information, and to generate abstract categories for interpretations. Reflect and evaluate tasks may require the reader to hypothesise about or critically evaluate a complex text on an unfamiliar topic, taking into account multiple criteria or perspectives, and applying sophisticated understandings from beyond the text. A salient condition for access and retrieve tasks at this level is precision of analysis and fine attention to detail that is inconspicuous in the texts.’

  •  In maths Level 6 learners can:

 ‘conceptualise, generalise, and utilise information based on their investigations and modelling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and flexibly translate among them. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply this insight and understandings along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships to develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations. Students at this level can formulate and precisely communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings, interpretations, arguments, and the appropriateness of these to the original situations.’

  •  And in science, they can:

 ‘consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding in support of solutions to unfamiliar scientific and technological situations. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social or global situations.’

 This 2011 IPPR Report on Benchmarking the English School System explains the somewhat different approaches of these two assessment suites:

‘PISA puts less emphasis on whether a student can reproduce content, and focuses more on their ability to apply knowledge to solve tasks…

…TIMSS…focuses on curriculum and as a result tends to test pupil’s content knowledge rather than their ability to apply it…

 …PIRLS…assesses…knowledge and content of the curriculum.’

In a recent paper on the PISA 2009 results, Jerrim marks the distinction between PISA and TIMSS in slightly different terms:

‘Whereas TIMSS focuses on children’s ability to meet an internationally agreed curriculum, PISA examines functional ability – how well young people can use the skills in “real life” situations. The format of the test items also varies, including the extent to which they rely on questions that are “multiple choice”. Yet despite these differences, the two surveys summarise children’s achievement in similar ways…

…This results in a measure of children’s achievement that (in both studies) has a mean of 500 and a standard deviation of 100. However, even though the two surveys appear (at face value) to share the same scale, figures are not directly comparable (eg a mean score of 500 in PISA is not the same as a mean score of 500 in TIMSS). This is because the two surveys contain a different pool of countries upon which these achievement scores are based…Hence one is not able to directly compare results in these two surveys (and change over time) by simply looking at the raw scores.’

With these similarities and distinctions in mind, let us turn to analysis of the data.


High Performance At Advanced Benchmarks in TIMSS and PIRLS 2011

Table One below shows the top ten countries in each of the five TIMSS and PIRLS assessments at the Advanced benchmark of 675: Maths Grade 4, Science Grade 4, Reading Grade 4, Maths Grade 8 and Science Grade 8. I have also included some countries of interest that fell outside one or more of the ‘top tens’.


Rank Maths 4 % Science 4 % Reading 4 % Maths 8 % Science 8 %
1 Singapore 43 Singapore 33 Singapore 24 Taiwan 49 Singapore 40
2 Korea 39 Korea 29 Russia 19 Singapore 48 Taiwan 24
3 Hong Kong 37 Finland 20 N Ireland 19 Korea 47 Korea 20
4 Taiwan 34 Russia 16 Finland 18 Hong Kong 34 Japan 18
5 Japan 30 Taiwan 15 England 18 Japan 27 Russia 14
6 N Ireland 24 US 15 Hong Kong 18 Russia 14 England 14
7 England 18 Japan 14 US 17 Israel 12 Slovenia 13
8 Russia 13 Hungary 13 Ireland 16 Australia 9 Finland 13
9 US 13 Romania 11 Israel 15 England 8 Israel 11
10 Finland 12 England 11 N Zealand 14 Hungary 8 Australia 11
Hong Kong 9 Hong Kong 9
Taiwan 13
Australia 10 Australia 7 Australia 10
Ireland 9 Ireland 7
US 7 US 10
N Zealand 4 N Zealand 5 N Zealand 5 N Zealand 9
Finland 4
N Ireland 5
Median   4   5   8   3   4

Table One: Top Ten Countries at Advanced Benchmarks, TIMSS and PIRLS 2011


Several important points can be drawn from this initial analysis.

  • Singapore is by some margin the most successful country in terms of the percentage of its pupils achieving the Advanced benchmark. It tops the rankings in all but Maths Grade 8, where it is a close second to Taiwan. In all the remaining assessments, it has a 4 or 5 percentile point lead over its nearest rival, and in Science Grade 8, an astonishing lead of 16 percentile points.
  • But the proportion of Singaporean learners achieving the Advanced benchmark varies significantly, from just under a quarter in Reading to just under half in Maths Grade 8. Singapore is much closer to the PIRLS median (+16%) in Reading so, arguably, that is a relative weakness at this level.
  • Other outstanding performers include: Korea and Japan (apart from Reading which they did not undertake); Hong Kong (apart from Science at Grades 4 and 8 where it was outside the top 10); Taiwan (though it was outside the top 10 for Reading); Finland (though it was let down in the Maths Grade 8 assessment), Russia and England.
  • The top-ranked countries in TIMSS – Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan – typically secure a significantly higher proportion of Advanced level achievers in Maths than in Science. The reverse is broadly true in a second group of countries including Finland, the US, Russia and New Zealand. England and Australia are significantly atypical, in that Maths leads the way at Grade 4 while Science is in the ascendant at Grade 8.
  • When PIRLS is factored in, it is clear that a group of countries including Finland, Russia, the US, New Zealand and Israel secure larger proportions at the Advanced benchmark in Reading than in both Maths and Science. The same is almost true of England, though the percentages are equal for Reading and Maths at Grade 4. Unsurprisingly, the outstanding Asian TIMSS performers tend to achieve a significantly lower level in Reading. The relative reading difficulty of native languages are bound to have an impact here.
  • Interestingly, England outscored or equalled Finland on all but one assessment (Science Grade 4). It exceeded the median comfortably on all five assessments: Maths Grade 4 (+14%); Science Grade 4 (+6%), Reading (+10%); Maths Grade 8 (+5%); and Science Grade 8 (+10%). (It was however outscored by Northern Ireland on Maths Grade 4 and Reading.)
  • On the basis of these differentials, Science Grade 4 and Maths Grade 8 are England’s areas of relative weakness amongst high achievers though, if the analysis is undertaken on the basis of the gap between England and the world leader for each assessment, the incontrovertible priority is Maths Grade 8 where there is a 41 percentile point chasm between England and Taiwan.

. .

Trends Over Time in Performance Against TIMSS and PIRLS Advanced Benchmarks

Tables 2A to 2E below show how the percentage achieving the Advanced benchmark has changed over time in each country within the top 10 in each assessment in 2011 (excluding those for which there is insufficient data).

Where the percentage has declined between cycles of the assessment, the figure is emboldened. Each table also shows for each country the percentage change between the first assessment and that undertaken in 2011.


Country 1995 2003 2007 2011 ImprovementSince 1995
Singapore 38 38 41 43 +5
Korea 25 39 +14
Hong Kong 17 22 40 37 +20
Taiwan 16 24 34 +18
Japan 22 21 23 30 +8
England 7 14 16 18 +11
Russia 11 16 13 +5
US 9 7 10 13 +4
Lithuania 10 10 10 0
Belgium (Flemish) 10 10 0

Table 2A: TIMSS Maths Grade 4 – Trend in Percentage Achieving Advanced Benchmark


Country 1995 2003 2007 2011 ImprovementSince 1995
Singapore 14 25 36 33 +19
Korea 22 29 +7
Russia 11 16 16 +5
Taiwan 14 19 15 +1
US 19 13 15 15 -4
Japan 15 12 12 14 -1
Hungary 7 10 13 13 +6
England 15 15 14 11 -4
Sweden 8 10 +2
Czech Republic 12 7 10 -2

Table 2B: TIMSS Science Grade 4 – Trend in Percentage Achieving Advanced Benchmark


Country 2001 2006 2011 Improvement Since 2001
Singapore 12 19 24 +12
Russia 5 19 19 +14
England 20 15 18 -2
Hong Kong 5 15 18 +13
US 15 12 17 +2
New Zealand 14 13 14 0
Taiwan 7 13 +6
Denmark 11 12 +1
Hungary 10 14 12 +2
Bulgaria 17 16 11 -6

Table 2C: PIRLS Reading – Trend in Percentage Achieving Advanced Benchmark


Country 1995 1999 2003 2007 2011 Improvement Since 1995
Taiwan 37 38 45 49 +12
Singapore 40 42 44 40 48 +8
Korea 31 32 35 40 47 +16
Hong Kong 23 28 31 31 34 +11
Japan 29 29 24 26 27 -2
Russia 9 12 6 8 14 +5
Australia 7 7 6 9 +2
England 6 6 5 8 8 +2
Hungary 10 13 11 10 8 -2
US 4 7 7 6 7 +3

Table 2D: TIMSS Maths Grade 8 – Trend in Percentage Achieving Advanced Benchmark


Country 1995 1999 2003 2007 2011   Improvement Since 1995
Singapore 29 29 33 32 40 +11
Taiwan 27 26 25 24 -3
Korea 17 19 17 17 20 +3
Japan 18 16 15 17 18 0
Russia 11 15 6 11 14 +3
England 15 17 15 17 14 -1
Slovenia 8 6 11 13 +5
Australia 10 9 8 11 +1
US 11 12 11 10 10 -1
Hong Kong 7 7 13 10 9 +2

Table 2E: TIMSS Science Grade 8 – Trend in Percentage Achieving Advanced Benchmark


This trend-based data throws a different complexion on the performance of several leading countries.

  • Though Singapore has managed impressive double-digit improvements in four of the five assessments, its improvement in Grade 4 Maths is far less spectacular, at a mere 5%. Moreover, Singapore’s performance actually declined on both Grade 8 Maths and Science in 2007, though it has reversed that trend in 2011 (and quite spectacularly so in Science).
  • The rate of improvement in some other countries has exceeded that of Singapore. At Grade 4 in Maths, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, England and Japan are all improving at a significantly faster rate. The same is true of Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong at Grade 8. Singapore has comfortably the fastest rate of improvement in Grade 4 and Grade 8 Science. In Reading though, Russia and Hong Kong outscore Singapore on this metric.
  • There have also been some significant declines in performance over the period that these assessments have been conducted. Both England and the United States have suffered a decline of four percentile points in Grade 4 Science, while Taiwan’s Grade 8 Science result has fallen by three percentage points and Bulgaria’s Reading score by six percentage points.
  • Within TIMSS, most of the leading countries – including Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, England, Russia and the US – have improved significantly more on Maths than they have on Science. However, the reverse is true in Singapore (perhaps suggesting that Singapore science is a potentially stronger export than Singapore maths). Japan is also atypical in that there has been an improvement in Maths at Grade 4 but in all other assessments there has been no improvement or a slight decline.
  • Where countries have achieved improvements within TIMSS assessments, these are typically stronger at Grade 4 than Grade 8, though the reverse is true in Maths in Singapore and Korea, while both Russia and the US present a more balanced scorecard in this respect.
  • When PIRLS is factored in, one notices that improvements in Reading tend to be less strong than in each country’s fastest improving TIMSS subject but stronger than in its slower improving TIMSS subject. Russia is the obvious outlier, with outstanding improvement in Reading relative to both Maths and Science. In England the decline in Reading is similar to that in Science.
  • Considered from this perspective, Singapore should be prioritising Grade 4 Maths, while Korea and Hong Kong should concentrate on Grade 8 Science. The US must look at Grade 4 Science and, to a lesser extent, Grade 8 Science. England’s priorities would also be Grade 4 and Grade 8 Science plus Reading. Maths is strong at Grade 4, though relatively less so at Grade 8.


How Singapore Summarised the outcomes of TIMSS/PIRLS 2011

How Singapore Summarised the outcomes of TIMSS/PIRLS 2011


Overall Rankings Compared With Rankings for Achievement of Advanced and Low Benchmarks

The next set of Tables examines how countries’ rankings differ for the overall assessment (based on the median score of learners from that country), the percentage achieving the highest ‘Advanced’ benchmark and the percentage achieving the lowest ‘Low’ benchmark.

This provides an indicator of whether each country’s highest achievers are outperforming the average achievers in comparative terms – and to what extent (if at all) the lowest achievers are lagging behind.

To make this manageable I have again confined the analysis to the top ten countries in each assessment against the ‘Advanced’ Benchmark.


Country Advancedrank Overallrank Lowrank
Singapore 1 1 2=
Korea 2 2 1
Hong Kong 3 3 2=
Taiwan 4 4 2=
Japan 5 5 2=
N Ireland 6 6 13=
England 7 9 19=
Russia 8 10 9=
US 9 11 13=
Finland 10 8 8

Table 3A: TIMSS Grade 4 Maths – Comparison of Rank for Achievement of Advanced Benchmark, Overall and for Achievement of Low Benchmark


Country Advancedrank Overallrank Lowrank
Singapore 1 2 6=
Korea 2 1 1=
Finland 3 3 1=
Russia 4 5 5=
Taiwan 5 6 6=
US 6 7 9=
Japan 7 4 1=
Hungary 8 10 22=
Romania 9 28 34=
England 10 15 22=

Table 3B: TIMSS Grade 4 Science – Comparison of Rank for Achievement of Advanced Benchmark, Overall and for Achievement of Low Benchmark


Country Advancedrank Overallrank Lowrank
Singapore 1 4 15=
Russia 2 2 2=
N Ireland 3 5 15=
Finland 4 3 2=
England 5 11 21=
Hong Kong 6 1 2=
US 7 6 7=
Ireland 8 10 15=
Israel 9 18 29=
N Zealand 10 23 32

Table 3C: PIRLS Reading – Comparison of Rank for Achievement of Advanced Benchmark, Overall and for Achievement of Low Benchmark


Country Advancedrank Overallrank Lowrank
Taiwan 1 3 5=
Singapore 2 2 1=
Korea 3 1 1=
Hong Kong 4 4 3=
Japan 5 5 3=
Russia 6 6 7
Israel 7 7 15=
Australia 8 12 11=
England 9 10 13=
Hungary 10 11 13=

Table 3D: TIMSS Grade 8 Maths – Comparison of Rank for Achievement of Advanced Benchmark, Overall and for Achievement of Low Benchmark


Country Advancedrank Overallrank Lowrank
Singapore 1 1 4=
Taiwan 2 2 4=
Korea 3 3 2=
Japan 4 4 2=
Russia 5 7 4=
England 6 9 9=
Slovenia 7 6 4=
Finland 8 5 1
Israel 9 12 19=
Australia 10 13 11=

Table 3E: TIMSS Grade 8 Science – Comparison of Rank for Achievement of Advanced Benchmark, Overall and for Achievement of Low Benchmark


These Tables show that, particularly at the top end of the distribution, there is a very close correlation between ranking on the basis of average score and on the basis of the proportion achieving the Advanced benchmark.

There is also a fairly close correlation with the proportion achieving the Low benchmark, but this is not quite so pronounced and there are some outliers with relatively ‘long tails’ of low achievement.

  • In Maths at Grade 4 the top five countries get very high percentages of pupils past the Low Benchmark, but the next five are relatively less successful and, of these, England is least successful. It has a relatively ‘long tail’, while its highest achievers do comparatively better than the overall measure. The latter is also true of Russia and the United States, but the reverse is the case in Finland. This is arguably evidence that England, Russia and the US should prioritise the lower end of the distribution while Finland should pay more attention to the top end.
  • In Maths at Grade 8 the pattern is broadly similar though, with the exception of Israel, the ‘long tail’ for the countries just below the top rank is not quite so pronounced. This might suggest that earlier efforts to bring younger low achievers up to a higher standard – and to narrow national achievement gaps – have been at least partly successful.
  • In Science at Grade 4 these variations are once again more substantial, while tending to narrow at Grade 8, so giving a similar pattern. Singapore’s rankings suggest relatively greater priority is required at the lower end of the achievement distribution. Romania is clearly the worst in this respect, though England and Hungary are not too far behind. The’ ranking gap’ in England is broadly similar for Maths and Science at Grade 4 and at Grade 8 respectively.
  • In Science at Grade 8, Israel again has the longest tail, comparable with the situation in Maths Grade 8. Finland is again remarkable for bucking the general trend, suggesting perhaps that it is too much focused on lifting everyone up to a relatively high standard and too little focused on stretching those at the top.
  • In Reading there is relatively more volatility throughout the table, at the top as much as the bottom of the top ten. Russia, Finland and the United States have relatively ‘flat profiles’, while Hong Kong assumes the ‘reverse profile’ more typically associated with Finland in respect of Maths and Science. Several countries have a pronounced tail, including Singapore, Northern Ireland, England, Ireland, Israel and New Zealand. The latter two have the biggest issue in this respect. There is clearly an issue here for Singapore to address.


Broad Comparisons Between TIMSS and PIRLS 2011 and PISA 2009

Finally in this data analysis section, it is worthwhile to compare the top-ranking countries in terms of the proportions achieving the most demanding benchmarks, to identify broad similarities and differences.

Of course the results are not strictly comparable because the assessments are substantively different, the assessed learners are older on PISA, and the cohort of countries competing with each other is not the same.

Nevertheless, the exercise is instructive.

For the purpose of the comparison I have used the Grade 8 Maths and Science assessments (because the learners taking them are almost the same age as those undertaking PISA), but I have also included PIRLS, as the only comparison available for reading.

On this occasion, however, I have included the top 20 ranked institutions in each assessment

Rank TIMSSMathsG8 PISAMaths TIMSSScienceG8 PISAScience PIRLSReading PISAReading
1 Taiwan Shanghai Singapore Singapore Singapore NZ
2 Singapore Singapore Taiwan Shanghai Russia Singapore
3 Korea Taiwan Korea NZ N Ireland Shanghai
4 HK HK Japan Finland Finland Australia
5 Japan Korea Russia Australia England Japan
6 Russia Switzerland England Japan HK Canada
7 Israel Japan Slovenia HK US Finland
8 Australia Belgium Finland UK Ireland US
9 England NZ Israel Germany Israel Sweden
10 Hungary Liechtenstein Australia Canada NZ HK
11 Turkey Finland US Netherlands Canada Belgium
12 US Germany HK Switzerland Taiwan France
13 Romania Australia NZ Estonia Denmark Korea
14 Lithuania Canada Hungary US Hungary Iceland
15 NZ Netherlands Turkey Czech Rep Bulgaria Israel
16 Ukraine Macao Sweden Ireland Croatia UK
17 Slovenia Slovenia Lithuania Belgium Australia Norway
18 Finland Slovakia Ukraine Korea Italy Ireland
19 Italy France Iran Austria Germany Poland
20 Armenia Czech Rep UAE Sweden Portugal Switzerland


Table 4: Top 20 Rankings for Highest Benchmark in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA


In PISA results are reported for the UK as a whole, but the figures for Level 6 achievement in England are almost identical (only in maths is there a noticeable difference, with England’s result 0.1% lower than that reported for the UK).

England is ranked 29th on PISA Maths, the only column in the table in which neither England nor the UK appears.

The rankings show that a handful of the ‘usual suspects’ are highly placed on both TIMSS/PIRLS and PISA. Singapore is ubiquitous.

Some countries perform relatively better on the PISA side of the equation – New Zealand is an obvious example – while England is a comparatively better performer on TIMSS/PIRLS, as is the United States.

It is interesting to hypothesise whether these differences reflect different strengths in national education systems. Other things being equal, do those countries performing best on PISA pay relatively more attention their high achiever’s problem-solving and the application of content knowledge? Do those performing better on TIMSS/PIRLS emphasise content knowledge above ‘real life’ problem-solving?

Perhaps high-achieving learners in countries more successful in PISA are simply more familiar with assessment instruments that feature such problem-solving. Or perhaps much of the difference is explainable by more mundane variations in the assessment process. There are likely to be several different factors in play.

The countries that appear most frequently on these lists are amongst the global leaders in educating high-achieving learners. Whether there is a significant correlation with the scope and efficacy of their gifted education programmes is less certain.

We know from previous posts on this Blog that Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong have some of the best developed gifted education programmes in the world. Israel also falls into this category, as did England in the period up to 2011.

It would be a reasonable hypothesis that their investment at the top end of the ability range is having a positive effect in terms of educational outcomes as measured by these assessments, but I am not aware of any research that attempts to establish such causality.

And it is important to note that the percentages achieving the highest benchmarks in PISA/TIMSS and PIRLS vastly exceed the proportions admitted into leading countries’ gifted education programmes whereas, in England, the proportion achieving the highest benchmarks is significantly lower than the percentage in the former national gifted education programme.

Assessment Leading country % at highest BenchmarkIn leading


% at highestBenchmarkIn England % at highest benchmarkAverage for Assessment*
TIMSS Maths G4 Singapore 43 18 4
TIMSS Maths G8 Taiwan 49 8 5
PISA Maths Shanghai 26.6 1.7 3.1
TIMSS Science G4 Singapore 33 11 3
TIMSS Science G8 Singapore 40 14 4
PISA Science Singapore 3.9 1.8 1.1
PIRLS Reading Singapore 24 18 8
PISA Reading NZ 2.9 1.0 0.8

 *Averages for PISA are OECD countries only

Table 5: Percentage Achieving Highest Benchmark in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA – Comparison of Leading Country and England


Table 5 shows that the gaps between England and the leading country can be highly variable between assessments.

  • In TIMSS Grade 4 Maths, Singapore achieves more than twice as many as England at the highest benchmark but, at Grade 8, Taiwan manages over six times as many.
  • In PISA Maths the difference between Shanghai and England is enormous – over 15 times as many Shanghai learners achieve the benchmark.
  • In TIMSS Grade 4 Science, Singapore has exactly three times as many at the highest benchmark while, at Grade 8, it has slightly less than that.
  • In PISA Science, slightly more than twice as many Singaporean learners achieve the highest benchmark.
  • In PIRLS reading the difference is much smaller, with Singapore only 25% ahead but
  • In PISA Reading, the gap between England and New Zealand is once again close to a multiple of three.

So, while the majority of assessments show the international leader having a two- or threefold greater proportion achieving the highest benchmark, there are three conspicuous outliers: TIMSS Grade 8 Maths and especially PISA Maths (where England performs significantly worse); and PIRLS Reading (where England scores significantly better.

At the same time though, England is significantly ahead of the average for each assessment, with the sole exception of PISA maths.

This is not quite the overwhelmingly negative picture painted in the Sutton Trust’s Educating the Highly Able (which I analysed at length in a previous post).

While there is a significant gap between England and the world’s leaders on all these assessments, its performance is comparatively respectable in all but PISA Maths/TIMSS Grade 8 Maths. This suggests a particular problem with secondary maths for the highest achievers in England.


Various PISA products courtesy of OECD

Various PISA products courtesy of OECD


Domestic Analysis of England’s Performance in TIMSS and PIRLS 2011

NFER has published extensive analyses of England’s performance in TIMSS and PIRLS respectively. The analysis shows that:

  • In all four TIMSS assessments, the attainment difference between the highest and lowest performing learners was just short of 300 TIMSS scale points.
  • The best-performing countries typically have similar or smaller ranges of attainment, though there were exceptions (Taiwan for Grade 8 maths and Singapore for Grade 4 and Grade 8 Science). The variation tends to be greater for those below average than for those above.
  • Whereas at Grade 4 in Maths England’s performance can be seen as at the low end of the highest performing countries, at Grade 8 it ‘has more in common with the performance of the majority of countries than with the highest performing countries’.
  • At Grade 4 in Science ‘England is in a group of countries with relatively low proportions of pupils at the advanced benchmark’ and, despite the good showing in the rankings the profile at Grade 8 ‘differs from those of the highest scoring countries’.
  • In the PIRLS Reading assessment ‘the most able readers [in England] were among the best readers in the survey’. They reached levels similar to Singapore’s high achievers and ‘higher than the most able readers in the three top performing countries (Hong Kong, the Russian Federation and Finland)’.

The TES ran a story in which Andreas Schleicher of the OECD – the man responsible for PISA – took an idiosyncratic position, arguing that good results in TIMSS and PIRLS would actually be bad news, because:

‘Pisa – which suggests a recent decline in England’s international standing – tests children at an older age than Timss and Pirls. Mr Schleicher claimed that a good performance from England in the latter two tests, after its fall from grace in Pisa, would therefore suggest that the performance of pupils is actually deteriorating as they progress through school.

“If you put the three surveys together – I don’t think you can strictly compare them, but if you sort of use them as approximations – in my view it makes the picture a lot more worrying,” he said. “Because the message you get is that the earlier the year in school that you test kids in the UK, the better the performance internationally.

“In other words, parents and society do a great job in children getting to school but then year after year the schools system adds less value than we see across (other) countries.”…

…”It is probably true that the UK system is actually quite good in primary education, in the early years, but then afterwards it peters out – you can see the high dropout, you can see the 14-18 problem and so on,” Mr Schleicher said. “If you look at the three surveys together you don’t get a very encouraging picture. It is a more worrying picture than if you look at them one by one.”’

This statement rather ignores the fact that only a single year separates PISA participants from those undertaking the TIMSS 8th Grade studies. From the evidence above, it is not consistently borne out by performance at the highest benchmarks, especially in Science.

There are likely to be several different factors responsible for England’s relatively better performance on TIMSS/PIRLS (including in the 8th Grade assessments).

Many have been identified through research studies, the majority of them associated with technical differences in the nature of the assessments. There will also be factors associated with the systems being assessed, but I have seen no substantive evidence to back up Schleicher’s claim.

On 11 December 2012, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss gave a speech about the evidence from TIMSS and PIRLS. Towards the beginning, she advances the oft-repeated truism (not entirely borne out by the evidence above) that:

‘In the past, and still today, this country has excelled at educating a small minority of its children to the very highest level.’

In fact, the minority is relatively large compared with most other countries.

Strangely, although the speech concentrates on the raft of reforms being introduced to improve performance in reading, maths and science, there is no reference at all to those which specifically benefit the highest achievers: the introduction of Level 6 assessment at Key Stage 2 and the development of a cadre of selective specialist 16-19 maths and science free schools.

The timing of these assessments was problematic for a Government elected to power in 2010. This BBC story includes a grudging reaction to the mixed bag of results from a Government spokesman:

‘These tests reflect progress between 2006 and 2011 and were taken only a year after the election.

So to the limited extent the results reflect the effect of political leadership, Labour deserves the praise for the small improvement in reading and the blame for the stagnation in maths and the decline in science. The tests say nothing, good or bad, about what we have done.’

Meanwhile the Opposition spokesman says:

‘These results show schools in England are some of the best in Europe – thanks to the hard work of teachers and pupils. The Labour government’s reforms saw reading results improve thanks to better teaching, smaller class sizes and Labour’s National Literacy Strategy.

However, we need to understand why East Asian countries outperform us in key skills – particularly science and maths.’


Summing Up

This analysis aims to exemplify how careful analysis of performance against the highest benchmarks in TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA assessments can offer broad indicators of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of education systems as far as their high achievers are concerned.

It acknowledges the significant weaknesses of an evidence base derived entirely from international benchmarking studies, although it does not address directly the problems associated with such studies which tend to call the findings into question.

It does not draw out the implications for each country – readers can do that for themselves – but I hope it does reveal that even the most celebrated international examples cannot afford to rest on their laurels. To take just three national examples:

  • Singapore tops almost every assessment but it performs less well on PIRLS Reading than on the four TIMSS studies. Other countries are improving their Reading performance at the Advanced benchmark at a much faster rate, while there has also been limited improvement over time at in Maths, especially at Grade 4. Perhaps Singapore is beginning to approach a maths ‘ceiling’, preventing the proportion of high achievers from being much further improved. In both Reading and Science there is evidence to suggest that the lower end of the achievement distribution requires somewhat greater attention.
  • Despite its stellar performance in PISA 2009 and strong showing in the overall TIMSS/PIRLS rankings, Finland is not amongst the world leaders in maximising the proportion of high achievers in these studies. It outperformed England only on Science at Grade 4, probably England’s main area of weakness. While Finland may have made strong progress in eradicating ‘long tails of low achievement’, there is evidence here to suggest that it is falling behind at the top end.
  • England’s outperformance of Finland – so often held up as the model for us to emulate – deserves to be more widely known and celebrated. The situation is nowhere near as bad as the Sutton Trust’s recent report on the Highly Able might suggest. But there is no room for complacency. There are still big gaps to make up in Maths at Grade 4 and in Science at Grade 8. The trend over time is disappointing in Science at Grades 4 and 8 and also in Reading. While attention is clearly needed to shorten ‘long tails’ in Reading, Maths and Science (especially at Grade 4), this must not be at the expense of the high achievers, or England risks falling into the Finnish trap.



January 2013

Gifted Education in Singapore: Part 2

This is the second of a trilogy of posts about gifted education in Singapore.

Part 1 reviewed the historical background: the gradual expansion and refinement of provision for highly able learners in this small South-East Asian educational powerhouse. It also examined the Singapore Government’s rationale for investing so heavily in their development.

This second part explores how pupils are identified and selected into the primary Gifted Education Programme (GEP), and to what extent coaching plays a part in this process.

But the bulk of the post is dedicated to a blow-by-blow description of the various strands of gifted education available to learners in the country’s primary and secondary schools.

It concludes with a section about professional development for educators working with gifted learners in Singapore.

As with Part 1, my primary source has been the Ministry of Education’s gifted education pages, but I have supplemented this with all other material available online with a view to providing a thorough and objective assessment.


Selection for the Primary GEP

The Ministry’s website offers a broad definition of giftedness to explain how the GEP and subsequent school-based gifted education (SBGE) fits alongside other elements of provision:

‘The term “gifted” is used to include many kinds of strengths. However, there are a few broad areas in which giftedness can show itself. They are intellectual ability, leadership ability, talent in art and music, and psychomotor ability. The GEP, as well as School-Based Gifted Education programmes offered by Integrated Programmes (IP) schools at the secondary level, cater for the intellectually gifted.

There are concurrent programmes such as the Music Elective Programme and the Art Elective Programme which cater to the needs of the musically and artistically gifted respectively.’

So the GEP is exclusively for those deemed ‘intellectually gifted’, though there are presumably some students gifted in more than one field who must choose between the GEP and these other options – there is no scope to pursue two strengths simultaneously. And, as we shall see, there is now a wider range of other options, extending well beyond the Music and Art Electives.

The GEP cohort is officially 1% of the national pupil population – around 500 pupils are currently admitted annually, at the beginning of Primary 4, on the basis of tests taken at the end of the previous year. The testing process is designed to identify pupils with what the Ministry calls ‘high intellectual ability and potential’,  as opposed to high attainment.

There is an initial screening test comprising English language and maths papers. This is used to identify a field of around 4,000 pupils (so some 8% of the national population) who compete to join the GEP.

They are eligible to enter a selection test consisting of English language, maths and general ability papers. (The latter is described as ‘a locally developed test to assess the abstract reasoning ability of the pupil’.) There is no set pass-mark. Success depends on being amongst the top 500 in the appropriate competition.

One reliable online source  – presumably located within the Ministry’s Gifted Education Branch – adds the interesting detail that an age adjustment was introduced into the identification process in 1997 when it was discovered that, from 1991-1995 successful pupils were relatively more likely to be born in the first three months of the year and much less likely to be born at the year end.

This source also reveals that the take-up rate amongst successful candidates varied between 90% and 95% during the first 15 years of the GEP, from 1984 to 1998. Interestingly:

‘The 2 most commonly cited reasons given by parents for declining the invitation to join the programme were fear of heavy workload and stress in the GEP and reluctance to have their children leave the school where their children were doing well and happy to join a ‘new’ school – the GEP centre.’

Singapore Skyline at Night with Blue Sky courtesy of Merlion444

How Susceptible are These Tests to Coaching?

The Ministry advises parents (the emphasis is mine):

not to prepare their children for the Screening and the Selection Tests. No test/assessment books have been prepared by the MOE for such a purpose. The GEP Screening Test and Selection Test are based on what all pupils should have been taught by Primary 3 in our schools

We have no evidence that schools are preparing their pupils for the GEP Screening and Selection Tests. The questions for the selection of pupils for the GEP are not accessible to the schools. Also, the test items are not the same from year to year.’

This rather defensive statement appears directly to contradict the earlier statement that the tests are designed to locate high ability and potential rather than existing high attainment. If the tests are based on what pupils have been taught, they must relate to a defined range of knowledge, understanding and skills. As such, they must be coachable.

On the other hand, it is hard to understand how a test of ‘abstract reasoning ability’ can be ‘based on what all pupils should have been taught…’ There is a fundamental contradiction here..

It would appear that the tests are a mixed bag. Those based on what children have been taught (ie the entire screening test and two-thirds of the selection test) will be relatively more susceptible to revision and cramming that will help candidates to boost their scores. The abstract reasoning test will be harder to coach, though practice in answering similar questions may improve performance at the margins.

The Ministry seems at pains to convince parents that primary schools are not preparing pupils for these tests – presumably to dissuade them from putting pressure on their children’s teachers to do so. But, if the schools do not offer preparation, the private sector will be sure to exploit the opportunity this creates.

And  it doesn’t take much effort to uncover extensive online reference to GEP ‘training schools’ and ‘preparatory courses’. An article from the Straits Times of October 28 2007 illustrates the kind of provision available as well as the nature of the debate about its value.

At least three private learning centres and ‘a handful of private tutors’ are reported to be offering preparatory classes costing up to 1,500 Singapore dollars (about £750) for an eight-hour course.

‘Experts will say that giftedness cannot be taught and these centres are merely training kids to be ‘exam smart’ in preparing for the GEP tests.

Private tutor Kelvin Ong, who said that he was a former GEP teacher, is unapologetic about his coaching courses.

‘You expose them to the type of questions they’ll be tested on. Then they won’t freak out. It’s about being exam smart,’ said Mr Ong, who gives his pupils past papers to practise on. As a GEP teacher, he used to invigilate the screening tests.

He coaches his pupils – whom he charges between $250 and $400 per two-hour lesson – throughout the year in English Language and Mathematics and is ‘very focused in getting them through the tests’.

‘If you’re willing to pay, that’s the objective you’ll meet,’ he said, adding that he screened the children before deciding if he would accept them.

He claimed that all 10 pupils he coached this year got through the first round of the GEP screening….

Mr Morris Allen, who teaches a two-week GEP prep class every June, exposes the kids to all sorts of IQ puzzles – words, pictures, numbers – to prepare them for the General Ability paper, which tests their problem-solving aptitude.

He also teaches them about time management, so that they do not panic and stumble or waste too much time on questions they cannot answer.

Of the 22 pupils he had last June, almost all got through to the second round. Eleven of them returned three weeks ago for a revision course.

He charges $30 an hour for the 20-hour course.

‘It’s just familiarising them with the unfamiliar,’ said Mr Allen, who sources cognitive ability tests from other countries for his pupils to practise on. He has been running his centres for 15 years.’

The Ministry spokesman responds:

‘Giftedness cannot be trained and preparatory classes cannot enable a child to perform at a level beyond his capacity…By sending their children to these prep classes, parents may actually be doing more harm than good, since a child who gains admission into the GEP through intensive coaching may not be able to cope with the programme’s demands….

But the story (indeed the Ministry itself) rather contradicts this latter argument a little further on:

‘While there have been cases of children who have asked to leave the GEP for various reasons, those who do because they cannot cope with the enriched curriculum are ‘very few’, said the ministry.’

Educators suggest that pupils’ time would be better spent developing a wider range of abilities and interests, and a psychologist warns of the added pressure and stress generated by such courses.

The debate is heavily redolent of the positions taken by advocates and opponents of academic selection here in England.

Supporters of coaching are keen to buy their children every chance of success through extensive practice, which has at least a marginal effect on test performance even if the tests are not directly coachable.

They may argue that heavily-coached learners are demonstrating the drive and commitment to succeed in an academically competitive environment (and could, if they wished, draw on some research evidence that calls into question the Ministry’s assertion that ‘giftedness cannot be trained’.)

Opponents point out the limited impact of such practice on performance and may suggest that candidates who succeed through coaching are likely to struggle in the company of more naturally able peers. (But we know that few GEP participants drop out because they cannot manage the academic demands. The highly selective nature of the programme means that all successful candidates will be relatively high attaining.)

One can reasonably hypothesise that some relatively late developers will be overlooked at the expense of their more precocious peers; also that each successful candidate will depend on a slightly different blend of innate ability on one hand – and personal drive and commitment on the other. These two factors will to some extent compensate for each other.

But opponents will also argue that – to the extent that coaching does benefit candidates – those benefits are only accessible to families that can afford the cost. This further increases the probability that programmes will be disproportionately dominated by those from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

I have been unable to uncover any information about the socio-economic background of GEP participants, but it is highly likely that advantaged learners will be over-represented. There is apparently no effort made to counterbalance the impact of home background on success in the selection tests.

In short, there is clearly an extensive coaching industry in Singapore linked to GEP entry, which is likely to further advantage the higher socio-economic groups who will already be over-represented within the Programme.

It would be fascinating to see the data…


The Primary GEP Experience

There are nine schools offering the primary GEP:

Two are boys’ schools, one is a girls’ school and the remainder are co-educational. Part 3 of this post will take a closer look at how some of these schools implement the GEP.

Each school hosts 2-4 GEP classes in Primary 4, 5 and 6. In total there are 23 classes in Primary 4 and 5 and 22 in Primary 6. The average class size is 25 pupils (significantly lower than comparable mainstream classes).

Pupils admitted into the GEP may already attend the school in question, but can attend any school running the Programme provided there is a space. If GEP classes at a particular school are oversubscribed, additional criteria determine priority for admission, including the school’s proximity to home.

The Ministry says that the GEP is ‘essentially the same’ in all nine schools, because  Gifted Education Branch works with teachers on curriculum development and also ensures that comparable standards are applied. There are, however, differences in  ethos which will impact to some extent on the nature of the GEP.

GEP participants benefit from an ‘enriched curriculum’ which, while based on Singapore’s national curriculum, is ‘pitched to challenge and stretch’ them and offers ‘individualised…attention’. Enrichment is provided through four familiar dimensions:

  • Content enrichment developing the standard syllabus by incorporating a greater breadth of material, studying standard material in greater depth and ‘covering more advanced topics wherever necessary’. The course develops inter-disciplinary connections and supports real-life problem-solving.
  •  Process enrichment through the development of higher level thinking, research and study skills, opportunities for experiential learning and group activities and support for different learning styles through a variegated pedagogy.
  •  Product enrichment through presentation of outcomes and creative expression.
  •  A learning environment that is stimulating yet supportive, encouraging risk-taking, and encompasses a suite of out-of-school learning experiences.

One element is Individualised Study Options (formerly known as Individualised Research Study). GEP participants in Primary 4-5 typically complete an independent research project reflecting an area of personal interest. This tackles a ‘real-life’ problem and is designed to develop research, analysis and communication skills.

But other approved options are now available and some pupils pursue externally-provided opportunities such as Odyssey of the Mind and Future Problem Solving.

A teacher-mentor works with a small group of pupils. The work is not graded but entered instead for an annual exhibition.

The standard out-of-school activities are outlined on the Ministry website.

Primary 4 pupils analyse traffic statistics and plan a class party within a fixed budget. There is also a mandarin poetry-writing and recitation competition for GEP and non-GEP pupils alike.

In Primary 5, there is also a Mandarin language camp, again for GEP and non-GEP pupils, a creative writing and performing arts programme, a 3-day maths masterclass for those with exceptional ability and also a maths trail focused on solving real-life problems.

Primary 6 provides opportunities to attend a series of weekly advanced maths enrichment classes (also for those with exceptional ability), a maths exploration day and a physics session including demonstrations and hands-on activities.

Progress throughout the GEP is continually assessed. Common assessments are used across all nine participating schools and test content knowledge as well as critical and creative thinking abilities.

If a pupil cannot cope with the demands of the course, his parents are invited to discuss his progress with Gifted Education Branch staff to decide whether or not he should be withdrawn. (It is implicit therefore that other solutions may be possible, even desriable – we know that very few learners drop out of the GEP in practice.)

At the end of Primary 6, GEP participants enter the common PLSE examination. Progression on to School-Based Gifted Education in the secondary sector depends on their PLSE performance, their GEP performance, ‘including a pass in Social Studies’ and ‘attitude towards work and the enrichment programme’.

Some 99% successfully make this transfer however, suggesting that only a tiny minority move into an independent school outwith the GEP, or transfer to a school abroad.

Chinese Grden Pagoda Twins courtesy of Ajarina

Programmes for High Ability Learners

Gifted Education Branch also offers enrichment activities for primary pupils outside the GEP. These Programmes for High-Ability Learners, designed for the top 2-5% of the school population in each subject, but confined to English language, maths and science. One source suggests that participants are selected by schools on the basis of checklists rather than via a testing regime.

The offer seems fairly limited at present, by comparison with the intensive year-round GEP. The programmes in English include:

  • An inter-school debating competition for Primary 5-6 and

The maths and science programmes comprise:

  • A Primary Maths Project Competition to stimulate innovative and creative mathematics. There are separate elements for Primary 4 (submitting a poster or report) and Primary 5 (designing and submitting a game)
  • A Maths Exploration Day for Primary 6 pupils encouraging them to explore and apply their mathematical knowledge
  • A Science Carnival offering workshops and activities to Primary 4 pupils and
  • A Maths Trail – a team problem-solving competition for those in Primary 5

Perhaps this provision is scheduled for significant expansion in the years ahead, or perhaps it will remain relatively undeveloped. One might reasonably expect online options to be introduced before too long, so making it easier to offer a significantly wider range of learning experiences across a wider range of subjects, should this be deemed a priority by the Government.


As for former students, there is a GEP Alumni Association although the website is now rather out of date, suggesting that it may not be thriving.

The Parliamentary Secretary (Education) spoke at its launch in 2004:

‘From what I hear, the response by alumni to the Association has been most heartening.  The GEP Alumni Association was registered as a society on 5 January this year.  Already, a few hundred alumni have signed on as members. Many more are expected to do so in the coming months.

The GEP Alumni Association has been set up to accomplish several aims.  One of them is to raise the public’s awareness of Gifted Education in Singapore.  Another aim is help the alumni stay in contact with one another.  Yet another, a noble one, is to explore opportunities for the alumni to contribute to the community.  According to a Chinese proverb, when one drinks water, one should look to its source in appreciative gratitude.  We should remember and keep in mind those who have helped to nurture us.  In the same way, the ex-GEP pupils desire to give something back to society, a society which has acknowledged the importance of catering to the needs of the intellectually gifted by providing programmes to support intellectual development in their crucial years of growth.’

The Secondary SBGE Experience

The Ministry’s gifted education pages suggest that School-Based Gifted Education (SBGE) is only available within the Integrated Programmes offered by seven schools. SBGE is partly devolved to institutional level, in that it is ‘designed and implemented by the schools with specialist advice from the Gifted Education Branch’.

The schools involved are:

As with primary GEP, we will take a closer look at provision in a sample of these school in part 3 of the post.

Four further schools offer the IP without SBGE and the Ministry says another seven schools ‘will offer the IP in the near future’ but does not give a date and does not specify whether they will also offer SBGE.

It is important not to exclude these other IP schools from consideration as they too fall under the purview of Gifted Education Branch. An article in a May 2011 Newsletter notes:

‘The Gifted Education Branch, MOE, will help the new IP schools build their capacity, through teacher training and consultancy, as well as advise on curricular framework, programming and student assessment. This is in line with the Branch’s mission to provide leadership in the education of the intellectually gifted, and to nurture gifted and talented individuals to their full potential.’

The core curriculum for SBGE is described as ‘rigorous and differentiated’. Schools typically offer additional optional subjects – electives – such as philosophy, research education, information and communication studies and integrated humanities.

The typical class size is given as 25-30.SBGE students are typically grouped together in a class with a minority of IP students who did not undertake the primary GEP.

The Ministry refers to support for gifted learners’ social and emotional needs. Counselling is provided by the schools and also by counsellors attached to Gifted Education Branch.

There is little further information about the structure and content of IP SGBE at a generic level – one must turn to the schools’ websites to find out more about the programme on offer in each institution, and these are significantly different as we shall see.

Singapore River Stamford Raffles Statue courtesy of Calvin Teo

Additional Enrichment at Secondary Level

SBGE within the IP is clearly a direct descendant of the GEP (apologies for the embarrassment of acronyms) in that it is designed for academic all-rounders. But the in-school provision is complemented by three centrally-organised and subject-specific out-of-school activities:

  • A maths enrichment workshop – a two-day non-residential activity for mathematically talented SBGE pupils in Secondary 2 covering areas of maths not normally addressed within the school syllabus;
  •  A maths seminar – a half-day event for SBGE participants comprising lectures on maths not normally encountered beforel higher education; and
  •  A literature seminar – the format varies but is designed for SGBE participants in Secondary 2-3 with an interest in – and aptitude for – literature and writing.

There is also an extensive range of what are called Special Programmes. These are subject-specific ‘extensions of the enriched curriculum’ designed to:

‘identify and reach out to motivated and high-ability pupils in a specific domain, and offer them opportunities to deepen their interest in the field and to learn from practising professionals and academics.’

Such programmes typically incorporate a mentoring relationship and are developed and run by Gifted Education Branch as collaborative ventures with higher education, business or community partners. The Ministry website lists nine options.

Science-based activities are typically open to participants who are not undertaking SBGE as well as those who are:

  • Creative and Heuristic Applications of Science (CHAOS) – a team-based online science competition for Secondary 1-4 to develop creative and critical thinking skills in problem-solving.
  • Science Mentorship Programmes in which Secondary 2-3 students undertake science-based projects with the guidance of a teacher or university-based mentor. Participants write a paper for presentation at an annual Youth Science Conference.
  • A Science Research Programme intended for students with an aptitude for scientific research in the first year of Junior College or Year 5 of an IP course. Participants undertake university-based research projects over an extended period. About 130 annually will pursue an initial Research Methods learning module and 100 of these will proceed on the basis of an approved research plan.
  • Science Focus – again for first year Junior College and Year 5 IP students  – a 4-day programme of lectures, demonstrations and workshops covering physical, biological and pharmaceutical science, as well as IT and engineering.

Humanities-based activities are more typically confined to SBGE participants:

  • A Creative Arts Programme for creative writers in Secondary 2-3, Year 5 of IP and the first year of Junior College. This comprises a seminar and – for selected participants – a 9-month mentorship.
  • A Humanities and Social Science Research Programme, for SBGE participants in Secondary 3-4, which involves a research project guided by a university-based mentor, a symposium at which selected findings are presented and subsequent publication of the best research papers.
  • A Moot Parliament, again for SBGE participants in Secondary 3-4. The first phase is built around attendance at a Parliamentary debate; the second gives teams of pupils an opportunity to draft and debate their own bills.
  • A Leadership Development Programme for SBGE participants in Secondary 3-4 who show leadership potential and have completed initial leadership training sessions. A half-day seminar is followed by an 8-month attachment to a mentor and a final symposium, in which participants present their experience to those considering the programme for the following year.

There is also a cross-phase Innovation Programme, open to pupils in Primary 5 and Secondary 2 ‘in selected schools who have an interest in innovation and invention’. This runs from January to October each year and involves developing an innovative idea or product, ending with a fair at which the most promising projects are presented. All projects are stored on a dedicated website.

Standing alongside this provision is a separate entity called NUS-MOE Humanities and Social Sciences Research, for A level students ‘with outstanding aptitude and ability’ in either Chinese language and literature, Malay language and literature, English literature, economics, geography or history.

Participants undertake independent study and research under the supervision of university staff. This provides the basis for an extended essay assessed as part of the A level examination. Interestingly, the 2012 offer excludes English, Malay and geography, suggesting that suitable university staff may be in short supply.

Whereas this additional enrichment provision is targeted primarily at those following SBGE, there are also several in-school opportunities for those in the mainstream with strength in a particular subject domain.

Secondary Electives in Art, Music and Languages

A Music Elective Programme was introduced as long ago as 1982, so predates the GEP. It is open to:

‘academically able students with talent in music at selected secondary schools with special and express courses and selected junior colleges’.

It is offered in a dozen institutions which, between them, offer a range of options including O level, 4-year and 6-year IP courses, and 2-year Junior College courses for IP and non-IP students alike. Non-IP participants typically take O level music at higher level. IP participants typically offer music as an A level or an IB subject.

Up to ten scholarships of 1,000 Singapore dollars are available annually. Participants have access to out-of school activities including a music camp, and composer-led workshops and masterclasses.

An Art Elective Programme was introduced two years later in 1984. The target group is similarly defined (except of course that talent must be in art). It is available at six institutions, offering higher level O level or A level. Scholarships of 1,000 Singapore dollars are available to those at junior college.

Participants have access to fully-equipped studios and the usual range of enrichment opportunities.

The declared aim of both these options is to:

‘Stretch these students’ talents…and to develop individuals who would be able to provide leadership favourable to the cultivation of the arts in Singapore.’

The Language Elective Programme is a slightly different animal, being a 2-year option offered only at selected Junior Colleges. It provides the opportunity for students to offer the LEP as a fourth A level subject and is available in Chinese, Malay, French, German and Japanese.

The Chinese LEP is offered at five institutions. Participants can write research papers and take undergraduate modules that attract credit at Singapore universities. They can also access additional enrichment activities, including an immersion course in China or Taiwan. Outstanding students can win scholarships worth 1,000 Singapore Dollars annually, plus exemption from school fees. The offer in other languages is broadly similar.

Rather confusingly, there is also separate provision for secondary students who score in the top 10% of the PLSE and ‘have a natural ability to learn a foreign language, in addition to English and Mother Tongue’ to study a third language from Secondary 1, culminating in O level French, German, Japanese, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia or Arabic. These courses are provided by a Language Centre which is part of the Ministry of Education.

Even more confusingly, some schools and junior colleges also offer additional electives in drama, languages and the humanities.


Provision for Exceptionally Gifted Learners

Although there is no distinct programme for exceptionally gifted learners, the Ministry’s website provides extensive coverage of how the system responds to their needs.

The definition offered is imprecise:

‘An exceptionally gifted child is one whose intellectual ability is significantly advanced’

but is supported by an extended checklist of ‘common characteristics’.

Provision and support is governed by an interesting set of core principles:

  • these children should be in the Singapore school system
  • they should receive a well-rounded education. (Cognitive development should not be achieved at the expense of development in the moral, social, physical and aesthetic domains)
  • the recommended interventions should be made within the constraints of existing resources.

The first may imply that the Government will not support home-educated pupils and/or that there is no necessity for them to be educated outside Singapore. The second is a fairly standard statement of opposition to ‘hothousing’.

The third’s reference to resource constraints is faintly ironic given the huge sums that Singapore must invest in gifted education more generally, but may be intended to lower parents’ expectations of what can be provided to meet individual needs. Since the text offers the estimate that perhaps three in every 100,000 children meet the criteria, such support is unlikely to break the bank!

However, the website lists a series of possible interventions for such learners including self-paced instruction, online courses, mentoring, subject acceleration, early admission to primary school, level skipping (up to a maximum of four levels) and dual enrolment.

It adds:

‘Once a child is identified as exceptionally gifted, a team comprising the child, teacher(s), school leader(s), parents and officers in GE Branch is formed. The team draws up a Personalised Education Plan (PEP) for the child. Each PEP will take into account the child’s readiness for faster academic progression, as well as his/her social emotional development. The PEP is reviewed at the end of every semester.’

Interestingly, while it is clear that the Branch will intervene to support dual enrolment, they are somewhat less supportive of early entry to public examinations:

‘Students are discouraged from taking these exams earlier if the sole purpose is to reduce the number of subjects they would have to do at a later date.’

Presumably early entry is deemed more acceptable if new, additional subjects are substituted for those completed, so exceptionally gifted learners are expected to accumulate a wider than usual range of O levels and/or A levels

A secondary source comments:

‘Traditionally, gifted education in Singapore has been based on enrichment, not acceleration. However, there is increasing recognition that the enriched GEP curriculum is not able to meet the needs of the few exceptionally gifted children who are years ahead of the moderately gifted. Hence, a framework was developed to help these exceptional children. While adhering to the general policy of non-acceleration, exceptions are made for the exceptionally gifted who are assessed to need, and can benefit from acceleration. Each child had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), developed by a team comprising the child’s “significant others”: parent, teacher, counsellor and gifted education specialist. A handful of these children are also given opportunities to learn with like-minded peers, and where appropriate, mentored by university professors. Local universities are open to early admission of these children, where appropriate.’

The GEP has received significant criticism of its provision for exceptionally gifted learners. In an extended series of blog posts narrating his encounters with Gifted Education Branch, Valentine Cawley, father of Aidan, gives the impression of an institution that is insufficiently flexible to respond to the individual needs of gifted learners and negotiate appropriate support with their parents.

In 2010, Aidan Cawley moved to Malaysia to continue his education ‘because Singapore was not supporting his education adequately’. The blog continues, however.

In April 2009 a Parliamentary Question was asked about provision for exceptionally gifted students. The answer revealed that since 2000, fewer than 20 students had been identified as exceptionally gifted.

This question is almost certain to have been prompted by the case of Aidan Cawley  since a follow-up question is about whether such students have gone overseas for their education.

Boat Quay Singapore courtesy of chensiyuan


Professional Development

There is surprisingly little information on the Ministry’s website about teacher development and support. The historical section contains a reference to the development of various courses for primary teachers, but there are few if any details provided.

A separate Gifted Education Branch presentation on the maths curriculum for primary GEP participants explains that teachers are still selected by the Branch on the basis of their qualifications, the quality of their classroom teaching – assessed through a lesson observation conducted by the Ministry’s Curriculum Officers – and an interview.

All GEP teachers complete a pre-entry foundation course in gifted education as well as modules on curriculum differentiation and affective education during their first two years within the Programme. All new teachers are mentored by curriculum specialists from Gifted Education Branch and during their first two years they are observed at least twice per year. All attend regular workshops on pedagogy, assessment and student motivation.

GEP teachers have relatively fewer teaching periods than their peers because they are expected to need more time for lesson preparation and pupil support.

Separate training is provided for teachers providing High Ability programmes.

Secondary schools recruit their own teaching staff for SBGE but the Branch provides an annual training programme on the theory and practice of gifted education, as well as subject-specific workshops for all IP teachers.

At least in 2004, there was also a degree of wider involvement as the Minister’s 20th anniversary speech reveals:

‘The GEP has also been actively involved in sharing its pedagogies with mainstream teachers.  In particular, two programmes, the Enriched Curriculum for Bright Pupils and Strategies to Optimise Learning, were conducted from 1998 to 2002 to share strategies suitable for the highly able with over 900 primary and secondary teachers from 45 schools.’

Award-Bearing Courses

An item in a 2007 World Council Newsletter mentions that Gifted Education Branch is working with Singapore’s National Institute of Education to introduce a range of professional development courses to equip teachers to undertake SBGE. It adds that the NIE introduced a Masters in Education (Med) degree with specialisation in gifted education in January 2007.

The NIE Website currently contains details of a Certificate in Teaching Pupils with High Ability, an Advanced Diploma and the MEd.

The Certificate is open to qualified teachers, whether or not they hold a degree. The course objective is to:

‘Equip in-service teachers (primary and secondary; in mainstream and in IP schools) with an understanding of the needs of High Ability learners and with practical knowledge of appropriate pedagogy and programming options that would meet these needs.’

It comprises four modules, each of which is equivalent to two Academic Units and involves 24 hours of study. It can be counted towards completion of the Advanced Diploma and specific modules of the MEd.

Candidates can claim exemption from modules within the Certificate if they have completed ‘courses in the teaching of high ability learners during their basic teacher education programme in the past 5 years’ or ‘the 3 foundational courses on gifted education conducted by Gifted Education Branch’.

The four modules together:

‘are designed to equip teachers with a good understanding of the needs of High Ability learners and a pedagogic repertoire for meeting those needs. The modules will aim to provide necessary theoretical and practical frameworks that will enable teachers, Heads of Departments and Subject Heads to make sound decisions for curricular and instructional differentiation in their classrooms and for enrichment programming in their schools.’

They are:

  • Understanding and providing for learners with high ability – covering the historical and philosophical background of gifted education;
  • Curriculum for highly able learners – enabling teachers to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of highly able learners;
  • Programming for talent development – providing guidance for designing talent development programmes;
  • A practicum – involving the design and delivery of differentiated lessons or a school-based enrichment programme.

The Advanced Diploma is accessible to qualified teachers with a Diploma in Education or equivalent. Partial exemptions are available on the same basis as within the Certificate programme.

Course objectives are to:

  • ‘Understand the major historical, philosophical and theoretical bases of gifted education.
  • Understand the nature and needs of highly able learners.
  • Develop a differentiated curriculum to meet the unique intellectual and social-emotional needs of highly able learners.
  • Select, develop and evaluate teaching materials and methods to differentiate instruction for highly able learners.
  • Conduct school-based action research in the area of educating the highly able.’

The course consists of five core courses (11 Academic Units) and a choice of elective courses equivalent to at least 9 Academic Units.

The courses include the four within the Certificate programme plus:

  • School-based Action Research – research methods and planning and implementing a research study or school-based project;
  • Language Arts and Social Studies for the Highly Able – curriculum development in these areas;
  • Science and Mathematics for the Highly Able – ditto;
  • Teaching Thinking Skills – including theories and research on cognition, metacognition and thinking process and development of associated teaching units;
  • Creativity and Problem-Solving – the dimensions of creativity and development of associated teaching units;

The MEd entry requirements are a first degree, a teaching qualification and at least one year’s teaching experience or at least three years’ teaching experience or other relevant educational work experience.

The MEd consists of:

Two core courses: Educational Enquiry 1 and 2

Two compulsory specialisation courses: Differentiated Pedagogies for High Ability Learners and Understanding High Ability Learners

Three elective specialisation courses, selected from:

  • Affective Needs and Moral Development of the Gifted;
  • Identification of Potential and Interventions for Talent Development;
  • Critical and Creative Thinking for High Ability Learners;
  • Issues, Policies and Trends in Gifted Education;
  • Administration and Evaluation of Programmes for High Ability Learners and Talent Development

One open elective course and either a dissertation or two further courses (Critical Enquiry and a second open elective). Open elective courses are generic modules offered for all Masters courses.

The website carries two editions of a Gifted Education Newsletter intended for staff in schools amongst others. One is dated May 2011, the other November 2011.  Presumably this will continue to be published twice a year, so the third edition is imminent.

That marks the end of the second leg of this trilogy. Part 3 will concentrate on how gifted education is provided within selected primary GEP, secondary SBGE and independent Specialised Schools. It will conclude with an overall assessment of gifted education in Singapore, including evidence of its impact and how it has been received by Singaporeans.


May 2012

Gifted Education in Singapore: Part 1


This post on gifted education in Singapore is the next in an unofficial series featuring the Asian Tiger Economies that head the 2009 PISA rankings – and are amongst the ‘high-performing jurisdictions’ examined during England’s current National Curriculum Review.

It builds on a March 2011 post in my ‘Behind the Gifted News’ series which asked whether England would copy Singapore’s Integrated Programme. (More later about how the Integrated Programme fits within wider gifted education provision.)

Previous reviews have addressed gifted education in Hong Kong and South Korea. Now it is time to turn our attention to one of the educational powerhouses of South East Asia. For Singapore finished 5th in the PISA 2009 league table for reading, 4th for science and 2nd for mathematics.

My analysis of high achievers’ performance in PISA shows that, in 2009, the percentage of Singaporean students achieving levels 5 or 6 was 15.7% in reading, 19.9% in science and 35.6% in maths. (The percentages achieving level 6 were 2.6%, 4.6% and 15.6% respectively.)

Only Shanghai performed better (with the sole exception of New Zealand which just edged ahead of Singapore on reading). For comparison, the figures for level 5 and level 6 performance in England were 8%, 11.4% and 9.9% respectively.

Such exceptional achievement is testament to an education system that demonstrates all-round excellence, perfectly exemplified by a powerful gifted education programme that has gradually extended its reach over a 30-year lifespan.

But Singapore’s provision is far from perfect, as we shall see. Numbers are also very small in comparative terms, so there are big questions over scalability, but few other countries – if any – can rival the full richness and diversity of Singapore’s offer.

That diversity, as well as the longevity of Singapore’s investment in gifted education, results in an accretion of complexity, so this post is necessarily long and detailed. It is divided into three parts:

  • Part 1 covers the history, purpose and management of Singaporean gifted education;
  • Part 2 will look at selection for the Gifted Education Programme (GEP), will set out in detail the full range of primary and secondary provision and examine professional development and support;
  • Part 3 includes more detail about provision in exemplar primary GEP schools, secondary schools offering School-Based Gifted Education (SBGE) and the various independent Specialised Schools. It also reviews evidence of the impact of the overall programme and how it has been received within Singapore.


Before we get on to gifted education, it is essential to sketch in as context a brief outline of Singapore’s demographics and a more thorough treatment of its school system.

Singapore, located at the Southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, has an area of just 710 km2 but its population in 2011 was 5.184m (3.257m of them Singapore citizens). This gives the third highest population density in the world. Singapore comprises 63 islands and there is significant land reclamation to create more space (the original land mass was only 581 km2).

Singapore was ruled by the British from 1824, having been established as an East India Company trading settlement a few years beforehand. It became self-governing in 1959 and independent in 1965. It operates as a parliamentary republic.

It is also wealthy. The average per capita GDP in 2011 is estimated at just under $60K. About three-quarters of residents are of Chinese descent but there are also significant Malay, Indian and Eurasian minorities. There are four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. English is the language of instruction in state-run schools.

courtesy of Jonnyblaze07

The 2011 Education Statistics Digest confirms that there are just 356 schools in Singapore – 173 primary and 155 secondary schools.

There are some 257,000 pupils in the primary sector and 196,000 in the secondary sector and the total pupil population is around 511,000. In the first 10 years within the system – from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 – the total size of each year group varies between 39,000 and 53,000.

Education System

It helps to begin with a diagram, for the Singaporean Education system is highly complex, especially given the small population it serves.

It comprises

  • A six-year course of primary education with a core of English, mother tongue language and maths plus science, social studies, civics and moral education, music, arts and crafts, health education and PE. There are also cross-curricular activities and a community involvement programme. The first four years are regarded as a foundation stage, while Primary 5-6 is described as an orientation stage.
  • During the latter, a system of subject-based banding means that pupils are taught English, mother tongue, maths and science at either ‘foundation’ or a higher ‘standard’ level. (Such setting has replaced the more rigidly streamed approach that preceded it.) This is supplemented by Learning Support for those needing extra help in English and maths and the Gifted Education Programme (GEP).
  • The latter consists of an advanced curriculum offered in designated primary schools from Primary 4 to Primary 6 inclusive. Additional enrichment activities are also offered to pupils with subject-specific strengths but outside the GEP. Primary education concludes with the Primary School Leaving Examination (PLSE).
  • In secondary education, from Secondary 1 to Secondary 4, pupils typically follow one of three different tracks or pathways: an Express Course leading to GCE O level examinations; a Normal (Academic) Course leading to GCE N level examinations – those who do well in the latter may opt to take O levels after one further year; or a Normal (Technical) Course leading to GCSE N level examinations, including subjects ‘with technical or practical emphases’.
  • The various options have different curricular components, but students will typically study English, mother tongue, maths, science and the humanities plus Knowledge Skills, Life Skills, Cross-Curricular Activities and a range of electives in languages, art and music, some of which are only accessible in particular institutions.
  • Some 10% of students pursue the Integrated Programme (IP). This spans secondary and subsequent junior college education (Years 5 and 6), but skips the national examinations at the end of Secondary 4. Time that would otherwise be spent on preparing for GCE O levels is dedicated to ‘broader learning experiences’. This option is designed for those progressing to university who ‘could do well in a less structured environment’. In 2012, a 6-year IP beginning in Secondary 1 is offered in 11 secondary schools although in four of them students complete Secondary 5-6 in a partnering Junior College. Students can also apply directly to schools for entry to a 4-year IP beginning in Secondary 3 and one further institution offers only this 4-year option. Further details are set out in my March 2011 post.
  • Students formerly within the secondary GEP now undertake School-Based Gifted Education (SBGE). The Ministry’s Secondary Education booklet says SBGE is offered within the IP and Academic (Express) tracks, adding that seven of the schools that offer IP have SBGE incorporated within it, while five schools offer the O level track specifically for GEP students. However, the gifted education pages on the Ministry’s website mention only the IP provision, suggesting that the Academic (Express) option may now have been phased out. Either way, secondary options for graduates of the primary GEP are more limited than they first appear, though some may attend a specialised school (see below) or an alternative independent school.
  • Most students will progress to a post-secondary institution which may be: a Junior College (2 years) or Centralised Institute (3 years) providing an academic pathway for those with the requisite O levels that leads to GCE A level examinations;  a Polytechnic providing a diploma course in fields such as engineering, applied sciences and business studies; the Institute of Technical Education providing courses which allow students to progress to Polytechnic diplomas; or an arts college offering diplomas in visual and performing arts. Those attending Junior College or a Polytechnic will typically progress to university.

The Origins and Development of the GEP

Singapore’s Ministry of Education website provides extensive coverage of the GEP – material which I have used as the primary source for this post, though amplified and supported by the full range of other information available online.

The historical timeline provided by the Ministry is unusually comprehensive, amply demonstrating the gradual evolution of the GEP and related provision over three decades.

The GEP arose from the findings of a 1981 mission, led by Education Minister Tay Eng Soon, to review other countries’ gifted education programmes. Israel, the Soviet Union, China and the United States are specifically mentioned.

Two years later a concept paper ‘The Gifted Project’’ was prepared by Phua Swee Liang (who subsequently became the second wife of the Deputy Prime Minister). It proposed an enrichment-based programme, as opposed to an accelerative approach, broadly following an Israeli model built around gifted classes within normal schools.

The mission and concept paper provided additional and now familiar educational arguments for the introduction of the Programme, including: the risk that gifted learners would be under-challenged and so would underachieve; the risk that they might become an ‘underclass’ if their psychological and emotional needs were not catered for; and the case, grounded in equality of opportunity, for providing them with an education tailored to meet their particular needs. Gifted learners were presented as having special needs to which the education system should respond.

A Special Project Unit – precursor of the Ministry’s Gifted Education Branch – was formed to bring the Programme to fruition.  It was responsible for identifying participants, selecting teachers, preparing curriculum materials and monitoring progress.

In 1984 a pilot project was launched in two primary and two secondary schools. Further schools were added in succeeding years until, by 2001, there were nine primary and seven secondary schools involved.

The initial student cohort consisted of 100 pupils in Primary 4 and 100 in Secondary 1, each identified as the top 0.25% of their year group. By 2004, the total number of participants had increased to 2,400.

Sunrise Marina Bay courtesy of Kohd Mamal

A 2001 essay by Mark Lim Shan-Loong, now a lecturer at Ngee An Polytechnic in Singapore, provides useful background on the origins of the GEP, drawing on interviews with several of the key players during this period.

He identifies geographical, economic, demographic and political factors behind the establishment of the GEP, including:

  • A growing need for highly skilled workers to help Singapore compete economically in an increasingly globalised environment. A New Educational System (NES) was introduced in 1979 to improve educational standards across the board. The 1979 Goh Report had called for a differentiated curriculum so students could be taught at the pace appropriate to them. The introduction of the GEP was set firmly in this context.
  • As GDP increased in the 1960s and 70s, Singapore became able to afford to invest in the development of human capital, the only substantive natural resource at its disposal.
  • As standards of living increased, Singaporeans also developed higher educational expectations. The differentiation provided through the GEP was to ‘meet the needs of an affluent society that expected and could afford a better education for its children’.
  • The GEP was also introduced partly to develop the future political leadership of Singapore.

Another essay available online, produced by Gary Lim for a 2002 University of Alberta Graduate Student Conference, broadly supports this analysis. Lim examines the economic and social context surrounding the introduction of the GEP, tracing the shift from a ‘one size fits all’ Education for All policy towards a differentiated system described as ‘Ability-Driven Education’. He argues that:

  • The old system was deemed to have failed the gifted learner, not least because average class sizes of 42 inhibited effective differentiation.
  • The introduction of the GEP coincided with a period of sustained economic prosperity. The Government realised that it needed future leaders to steer the country through its next stage of economic and social development.
  • This coincided with the emergence of a Singaporean middle class who were attracted by the prestige of their children belonging to the GEP and alive to the benefits it might confer through their future advancement.
  • The GEP was consistent with Singaporean belief in meritocracy, combining Western views on the rights of the individual with the Confucian ideal of putting family and state before one’s personal interests:

‘The Government encouraged Singaporeans to believe that the GEP catered to the rights of individuals to receive the best education that they could obtain and that such a program would eventually result in financial progress for their family as well as economic development for the country.’

Consequently there was little debate or dissent.

The new policy received clear support from the top of the Government who were determined that it would succeed. As a result, it was driven through by a dedicated Special Unit which interviewed prospective teachers to establish ‘their suitability and interest towards promoting the cause of gifted education’. Pilot schools were chosen from those ‘known to have shown very keen support for the Ministry’s endeavours’ with dynamic principals who could make things happen.

Reflecting on the origins of the GEP, Mark Lim Shan-Loong describes the principles upon which the new Programme was based:

  • Provision through self-contained GEP classes within maintained schools – with GEP classes constituting no more than a third of the total number of classes per school – so participants could benefit from wider socialisation with their peers;
  • An enrichment-based approach, covering the mainstream curriculum in greater breadth and depth, as opposed to an accelerative approach enabling participants to undertake the mainstream curriculum at a faster pace. This incorporated higher-order thinking skills, collaborative and discovery learning.
  • Selection at age 9 (in Primary 3) steering a middle way between the advantages of early intervention and allowing younger pupils to become acclimatised to schooling while those from disadvantaged backgrounds have an opportunity to catch up their peers.


Introduction of the Integrated Programme

The next key milestone in the Ministry’s timeline is the introduction of the first Integrated Programmes in 2004. But, as we have seen from my previous post on the IP, it originated in the recommendations within a 2002 Report from the Junior/College/Upper Secondary Education Review Committee.

Initially three schools introduced IP for Secondary 1-3 and three schools for Secondary 4-6. But, as noted above, GEP participants were corralled in particular classes in particular schools to access a GEP version of IP called School Based Gifted Education (SBGE).

Depending on gender, they could choose between a 6-year ‘all-through’ IP option, then offered at the Chinese High School, Nanyang Girls’ High School, Raffles Girls’ School, Raffles Institution and the independent Anglo-Chinese School. The latter culminated in the IB, while all the remaining courses led to A level.

Four secondary schools continued to offer the GEP to pupils not opting for the IP, two providing it only in Secondary 1 and 2 and two more from Secondary 1-4.

These arrangements were refined over the next four years, with slight variations in the mix of schools offering the GEP and SBGE (though it’s not entirely clear whether the former still exists today).

The 2002 Report makes clear that the IP is designed for the top 10% of the relevant cohorts, on the basis that these will be the students progressing to university. (The Report notes that 92% of those amongst the top 5% of PLSE candidates and 86% of those in the next 5% typically attend university in Singapore.)

We know from a recent Singaporean Parliamentary Question that approximately 3,400 students have been admitted to the IP each year since 2004, about 20% of them at Secondary 3.

The answer also reveals that, between 2004 and 2006, about 6% on average withdrew from the IP before their final year, some because they moved abroad. It adds that ‘almost all’ of those who completed the IP qualified for publicly-funded universities in Singapore.

During a Parliamentary debate on the 2002 Report, the Education Minister was explicit that part of the justification for introducing the IP was to combat perceived elitism:

‘That is the basic point. We need more outstanding Singaporeans in all fields – Science, Mathematics, law, diplomacy, arts. We need more outstanding Singaporeans to take us forward. We need to groom them as best as we can, nurture a spirit of Singaporeaness in them and maximise their contributions to society. So, let us build this diversity into the mainstream and seek to contain social elitism as we do so.

The Integrated Programme schools will actually offer us more opportunities to guard against social elitism than our existing school system does. They will have more time. If you look at the proposals that have been put forward by the schools that are applying to run the Integrated Programmes, they indeed intend to spend a lot more time on developing leadership and commitment to the community. So, this is not a change that is intrinsically going to lead to a more elitist system. If anything, it offers an opportunity for the top academic talents to develop stronger instincts of Singaporeaness and commitment to their fellow citizens.’

A 2004 speech by the Parliamentary Secretary (Education) to a GEP 20th Anniversary Reunion Dinner offers a slightly different rationale, citing a need to ‘allow for diversity’ and ‘cater for a greater variety of needs in the education of the gifted’.

He also stresses the importance of moving with the times rather than remaining locked into an outdated system:

‘The GEP, having evolved to this point, should be prepared to adapt further to the demands of the time. What might have worked well for us in the past may be superseded by new best practices. Singapore’s education system can only stay ahead and serve our children well if students, parents and educators are open to change and new challenges.’

The IP was not the only reform during this period as another 20th Anniversary speech, this time by the Minister of Education, makes clear:

‘We lifted the cap on the number of GEP students entering each secondary school from this year, so as to give gifted students the freedom to choose from the range of programmes available. The IP schools will also have the flexibility to identify and select additional students to join their gifted programmes…

….The introduction of specialized independent schools opens up other new branches in gifted education.  The Sports School and School for the Arts will provide a higher level of resources and expertise, and a specially tailored curriculum, for students with exceptional talents in these areas. The NUS High School of Maths and Science, which will open its doors next year, will introduce a new model of education for the intellectually gifted.  It will offer a whole school approach to developing students with exceptional talents in mathematics and science.  It will offer a curriculum and assessment system quite different from the mainstream, allowing them full rein to develop their special interests and abilities, although it will share with the mainstream the desire to provide students with an all-round education.

…Together, these programmes will provide a wider array of choices for our intellectually gifted pupils.  The new programmes will remove some current constraints, particularly in the way standardised assessment shapes teaching and learning, and help us evolve new models of curriculum and delivery for the intellectually gifted.’

Raffles Place courtesy of Ramir Borja

Recent Developments – the Last Five Years

Further significant reforms followed in 2007 and 2008 with the introduction of a Revised Gifted Education Framework, which also impacted on the primary sector.

In 2007, while 9 primary schools continued to provide self-contained GEP classes for those selected into it, efforts were made to develop a slightly broader approach. Two schools introduced pilot schemes for the integration of GEP pupils within normal Primary 4 classes, while the remaining seven introduced ‘specific measures to promote interaction’.

In the case of the former, an integrated class of GEP and non-GEP pupils was taught together for all subjects outside the ‘GEP core curriculum’ consisting of English language, maths and science. In the latter, separate classes continued but GEP and non-GEP pupils were taught together in arts and crafts, civics and moral education, Chinese, music and PE.

All 9 schools would ‘ continue to provide enhanced opportunities for greater integration through schoolwide activities, CCAs and community involvement programmes’.

The precise details of integration are set out more fully in a Ministry press release.

Centrally-organised activities were also introduced to support High-Ability Primary 4 learners outside the GEP in English, maths and science. These activities were eventually extended to pupils in Primary 5.

(These High Ability pupils are described elsewhere as the top 2-5% of the cohort, so still a limited group by comparison with the 10% or so supported through the secondary IP.)

By the end of 2008, stand-alone secondary GEP options were entirely phased out, leaving only the SBGE provision (and we have noted above that SBGE may now be confined to the Integrated Programme (IP) track).

SBGE gave schools greater flexibility over curriculum design, though still supported by officials from the Ministry’s Gifted Education Branch, who continue to provide consultancy on request but also conduct regular evaluations to ensure the level of challenge is appropriate.

The wider context for these reforms is provided by a 2007 Speech by the Minister for Education entitled ‘Having Every Child Succeed’:

‘We are injecting fluidity into our ability-based system of education. The fundamentals of our school system are sound. We recognise different abilities and have students take different courses of study so that they can do well, and do not get demotivated in school. That’s a strength of the Singapore school system, and it has allowed our students to perform at a higher average level than most others.’

The current phase of reform:

‘helps many more students recognize that they can be strong in some areas, even if they lack prowess in other things’.

On the development of the GEP:

‘We are also seeing greater interplay between the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) and the rest of the school. The Integrated Programme (IP) schools are running talent-focused programmes at the secondary level, enabling both GEP and other students with a talent in a particular field to work together. We are moving towards the same arrangement in our primary schools, creating more opportunities for GEP students to learn and interact with others, and develop rounded characters from young.’

This is placed firmly in the context of meritocracy and social mobility:

‘By investing in quality across the board, we make sure that Singapore remains a place where it is your ability and effort that determine success, not who your parents are or where you start off from. We must remain a place where education is a path for social mobility, from one generation to the next.’

But also references the selective nature of the Singaporean education system:

‘Selection is by talent and ability. It is a rarity in state school systems, in fact quite incorrect politically in most countries. But it is what motivates and gives opportunity to every bright and talented kid from a less advantaged background. ..

We have an ability-based system, but it is one that opens up ladders all along the way, so that it is driven by each student’s aspirations…. We must keep enough flexibility in the system, keep open the bridges and ladders and make sure there is always space for aspirations, so that every Singaporean feels encouraged to try hard and go further….

But still, we see significant mobility taking place through education today, and more so than in most other countries. Students who come from the bottom 1/3 of home backgrounds (in terms of housing type and parents’ education levels) have a 50% chance of making it into the top 2/3 of PSLE performance in our primary schools. They also have a 50% chance of being in the top 2/3 of performers at the ‘O’-levels in our secondary schools.’

This time round there seems to be some reluctance on the part of politicians to acknowledge concerns about elitism, but other evidence shows these are still substantial. A 2007 Straits Times article argues that these changes were prompted by the:

‘long-held criticism that the GEP is elitist and churns out students who have problems relating to their non-GEP peers’.

A 2009 Parliamentary Question asks about the success of the integration policy in the primary sector. Part of the response is:

‘All nine GEP schools have provided positive feedback on the intermingling initiative.  Both pupils and parents have found intermingling beneficial.

With GEP and mainstream pupils spending more curriculum time together, engaging in hands-on activities as well as exchange of ideas and personal experiences, pupils have developed meaningful friendships. For example, as pupils are in mixed PE classes, they had to form mixed teams to represent the classes in competitions at the School Sports Day, and this has been invaluable in building team work.

Schools have also made it a point to organise pupils in mixed groups for school camps, outings and Community Involvement Programme (CIP) projects. This also provides opportunities for both groups to have a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and learn to appreciate each other’s talents.

We are encouraged by the positive feedback, and will continue with our efforts to promote intermingling of GEP and mainstream pupils.’

The Singapore Skyline courtesy of Someformofhuman

Gifted Education Today: The Government Perspective

The historical development of Singapore’s provision clearly demonstrates a gradual trend away from discrete GEP classes for a tiny minority of exceptionally able pupils towards a more balanced, multi-stranded approach that caters for a significantly  wider range of high-ability learners.

So how does the Government define the core purpose and aims of the GEP as it now operates in Singapore’s schools?

Unusually, the Ministry’s website publishes a full set of business statements for the Programme. It is possible to trace within these some of the rationale for the original introduction of the GEP, as well as traces of the reform agenda.

There is a mission statement:

‘Our mission is to provide leadership in the education of the intellectually gifted. We are committed to nurturing gifted individuals to their full potential for the fulfilment of self and the betterment of society’

Also a vision statement:

‘Our vision is to make Gifted Education in Singapore a model of excellence. We will achieve this vision by providing professional expertise and exemplary resources to develop intellectual rigour, humane values and creativity in gifted youths to prepare them for responsible leadership and service to country and society’

Each of these seem designed more for internal consumption by GEP staff rather than for participants, their families and other stakeholders. The same applies to a more learner-focused aim that deploys some of the same terminology as the vision statement:

‘To develop intellectual rigour, humane values and creativity in gifted youths to prepare them for responsible leadership and service to country and society.’

The italicised emphasis here is noticeably different to the aims typically articulated for similar programmes in the West.

A set of equally learner-focused goals includes terminology somewhat more familiar to Western ears, as well as similar references to leadership and national service:

  • to develop intellectual depth and higher level thinking
  • to nurture productive creativity
  • to develop attitudes for self-directed lifelong learning
  • to enhance aspirations for individual excellence and fulfilment
  • to develop a strong social conscience and commitment to serve society and nation
  • to develop moral values and qualities for responsible leadership

Finally a statement of rationale is set squarely in the context of the Ministry’s wider commitment to provide ‘an education of quality and relevance’ for each and every pupil. It offers two reasons for the existence of the programme:

  • The educational case, which is expressed in the following terms (the emphasis is mine:

‘children have varying abilities and it is not a sound practice to give every child the same education and expect him/her to move at the same pace as his/her peers.The intellectually gifted need a high degree of mental stimulation. This need may not be met in the mainstream classroom and the gifted child may become mediocre, indifferent or disruptive in class’

(Interestingly, this includes some recognition of the benefits of an accelerative approach that seems slightly out of kilter with the enrichment-driven rhetoric elsewhere.)

  • The wider national benefit, expressed in terms of investment in the human capital upon which Singapore relies for ‘progress and prosperity’.

How is the GEP Managed?

The Gifted Education pages of the Ministry’s website contain no information about the staffing and structure of its Gifted Education Branch, but further detail can be found within the Government’s online directory.

This shows that the Branch is located within the Ministry’s Curriculum Planning and Development Division. It is led by a Deputy Director, Dr Tan Bee Geok. She is supported by a Principal Specialist, Dr Quek Chwee Geok and two Assistant Directors, Chan Mei Yuen and Chng Poh Teen.

Altogether, exactly 40 officials are listed, including 14 senior specialists and 22 officers. There is also a general office which presumably contains additional administrative support staff.

A presentation given at the 2010 Asia-Pacific Conference describes the role of the Branch as:

In relation to the primary sector:

  • Identifying and selecting GEP participants
  • Selection, training and mentoring of teachers
  • Developing curriculum materials
  • Monitoring the implementation of GEP
  • Organising programmes for high-ability learners

And within the secondary sector:

  • Providing consultancy and training for schools
  • Organising Special Programmes to develop students’ domain-specific talents
  • Approving funding
  • Facilitating the development of exceptionally gifted learners
  • Conducting research and evaluation

Such a high level of Government staffing for gifted education must be unprecedented and unique. It is all the more astounding considering the size of Singapore’s education system, and the very small minority of Singapore’s pupils that are served by the Gifted Education Programme and related initiatives.

Taking the statistics available online, there are 2,400 students within the Primary GEP and 3,400 admitted each year to the IP (I have not been able to discover how many within the IP are also undertaking SBGE). That gives a total number of about 23,000 learners. Even if we assume that 5% of older primary pupils benefit from High Ability activities, the total number of beneficiaries cannot be much in excess of 30,000.

The staff to learner ratio for Gifted Education Branch alone is therefore about 1:750. I have found no information about the number of teachers working exclusively with gifted learners and the significant proportion of the time of other educators that must be dedicated to meeting their needs.

The Ministry is similarly coy about the cost of this staffing, as well as the size of the support budget for the GEP and related activities. All I can find is one recent Parliamentary answer that mentions an annual programme grant for primary GEP participants of 53 Singapore dollars per pupil!

It is almost certain, however, that Singapore’s per capita investment in its gifted learners is the highest in the world by some considerable margin.

We have come to the end of Part 1 of this post. In Part 2 we will take a closer look at how primary and secondary gifted education provision operates in Singapore today.


May 2012