This has been sparked by this press release.
The Programme for International Student Assessment, (PISA) project started in 2000, and attempts to compare the attainment of students across a range of subjects. This story concerns the science assessment.
And this is where it gets interesting. Because the data isn't out yet, and nor is the methodology. The Indie seems to have written its story based on the press release which contains partial data and which was prompted by the early leaking of results by a Spanish newspaper (Spain has fared very badly in the comparison).
What we do know, because the OECD have said so, is that the methodology has changed between 2003 and 2006, and so the data is no longer comparable. And the UK wasn't properly included last time as our data was not actually good enough quality to compare properly (see page 293 - 23rd page of this pdf).
Anyway, here is a rather nice link to a site that lets you play with the 2003 data. Each country gets a score going up to 600 (the lowest ranked country, Kyrgyrstan, scores 322 this time around).
In 2003, we scored 519. Not bad (although, as we have established, the data isn't great).
In 2006, our score has fallen, yes. All the way down to 515.
This means that within limits of error, by an international measure, our 15 year olds are ranked somewhere between 12 and 18 in the world for science comprehension. Not awful, but could do better - that said, there are quite a few countries who have similar scores to us. In 2003, unless something odd has happened, a score of 519 placed the UK 12th.
The reason we're being told the UK has fallen is because in 2000, we placed 4th. However, the number of countries involved was significantly smaller, and several of those included subsequently have found themselves higher. In fact, we have been overtaken by three countries from 2000 - Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
So, in brief:
A survey for whom we have no methodological details finds that some small countries that were not examined six years ago are a bit better at teaching their young people science than we are. Also, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have improved their science education, and the UK compares extremely well internationally - although we could probably stand to improve ourselves.
So, not really a national disaster for science education.
Sometimes you really need to read the source material - and not a press release - to get the sense of what is really going on. That might have stopped Michael Gove saying this:
"...today we plummeted down the international science league table. External audits are confirming what we have warned about.
The government has failed to equip our children properly for the future by using tried and tested teaching methods. It has failed to keep us internationally competitive by making sure our exams are properly rigorous."
Which is valid if all you have to go on are some press releases, but not if you have read the reports.
Technorati tags: higher education, universities, OECD