This report by the Education Policy Institute, in partnership with UCL Institute of Education (IOE), examines how well primary school pupils in England are performing compared to those in top performing nations – with the findings represented, for the very first time, in English measures of attainment.

English Education: World Class in Primary?  converts countries’ results from the international Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) into equivalent English Key Stage 2 (KS2) assessment results, producing an estimate of where England stands in the world in primary education.

Key findings


England’s maths gap

There is a significant underperformance by low attaining pupils:

  • Our analysis shows that England has one of the largest gaps between its high and low performers out of all developed nations. England’s top performing maths pupils achieve a very high standard but the bottom performers lag far behind.
  • The tail of low performing pupils supports the case for targeted support for vulnerable pupils throughout the course of primary school and early years education. If England is to be considered world class at primary in maths, the performance of pupils at the bottom must be improved.
Overall performance

England compares well with other developed nations at primary level maths – but trails behind the top performing nations:

  • To match the performance of the top-performing nations, we estimate 90 per cent of pupils would need to meet the government’s expected standard in Key Stage 2 maths by the end of primary school.
    • In 2016, only 75 per cent of pupils met this standard.
  • This means that, in order to reach this world-class benchmark of 90 per cent, an additional 90,000 pupils would need to achieve the expected standard in England.
  • Northern Ireland performs better in maths than England, with around 80 per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland reaching a world-class standard.
Local and regional findings

When examining the performance of England’s regions and local areas against the top performing countries, there are clear disparities:

  • No local authorities in England reached the world-class benchmark of 90 per cent of pupils meeting the expected standard in primary level maths.
    • 83 per cent of pupils met the expected standard in highest performing Kensington and Chelsea.
    • Only 60 per cent of pupils in lowest performing Bedford.
  • London dominates the top performers, with 17 of the 20 top performing local authorities in London.
  • Combined with previous EPI secondary school analysis, some areas in the North East perform reasonably well at primary, but then decline rapidly by the end of secondary.
    • Redcar and Cleveland ranks 16th in our primary table – but then falls to 122nd out of 150 authorities by the end of secondary school.
  • Some areas in the East of England and the East and West Midlands perform consistently poorly in both phases of education.
Opportunity Areas
  • The government’s 12 Opportunity Areas, considered the most challenged on social mobility, show a wide range in performance – spanning from 69 per cent of pupils in Blackpool, to 59 per cent in Norwich.
  • Overall, only 65 per cent of pupils in Opportunity Areas met the expected standard. This poor performance against the world class benchmark is unsurprising yet we find that there are many other areas where performance is just as poor, or even worse. The government should take these areas into account when it creates new Opportunity Areas.