9th July 2021

The evolution of cognitive skills during childhood across the UK

A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, provides new insights into the educational outcomes of pupils in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since devolution.

The study, which draws on the detailed Millennium Cohort Study of children born around 2000 and compares outcomes in reading, vocabulary, language and maths, finds that pupils in Wales perform much closer to those in England than has been previously reported in international PISA results, where Wales trailed England significantly.

Scottish pupils are shown to perform better than other UK nations at a very young age, but this quickly recedes as Scottish pupils get older, with pupils falling behind England in most performance measures, particularly in maths.

Pupils in Northern Ireland lead the way among UK nations in most measures of pupil outcomes, even moving ahead of the region of London, which is often widely revered for its high level of educational attainment. The highly positive outcomes displayed by pupils in Northern Ireland through the EPI study are more positive than seen in other international comparisons.

The four nations of the UK have increasingly taken separate paths on education policy since devolution in 1999 – with England focusing on increasing school autonomy, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland abolishing league tables and external testing.

Despite this, the study is one of only a few to explore how this divergence may have affected pupil performance over the last two decades. 

While policymakers typically turn to the OECD’s PISA results to compare pupil performance to their international counterparts, these assessments provide only a snapshot of pupil outcomes at the age of 15, missing how they evolve throughout childhood.

By drawing on the Millennium Cohort Study, the new EPI study shows how UK countries perform across a range of educational and skills measures throughout childhood from age 3 to 14. Unlike previous international comparisons, the report also controls for several differences in pupils’ demographics, socio-economic backgrounds and early life conditions, allowing for more similar comparisons.  

You can download the report here.


Key findings


Pupils in Wales perform at a similar level to pupils in England – with the exception of reading  

  • The educational outcomes and skills of pupils in Wales are largely similar to those in England. These findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study stand in contrast to those in the international PISA results, which have shown Wales’ performance as being a lot further behind England.
  • While performance is largely similar in England and Wales, there is the exception of lower performance in reading outcomes in Wales, particularly in reading for young children at the age of 7.
  • Wales’ poorer performance in reading appears to be an established, long-term problem, as it is also reflected in PISA results. The lower performance in reading is a concern, given the importance of reading for accessing other parts of the curriculum.


Scottish children perform well at a young age, but this quickly fades as they get older – with pupils falling behind their English peers, especially in maths

  • Children in Scotland have the highest educational outcomes and skills when starting out in life, at the age of three.
  • Despite this strong starting position, performance then falls behind other UK nations at later ages in most outcomes, particularly in maths.
  • These findings come despite parents in Scotland having higher levels of education than parents in other parts of the UK. This relatively advantageous position has not been reflected in the educational outcomes of the younger Scottish generation.
  • The Millennium Cohort Study findings showing poor performance in maths are supported by international PISA results, which show that performance in maths has been declining over time. However, recent evidence has raised some questions about the reliability of Scotland’s PISA results.
  • Lower maths scores in Scotland are seen across all income groups, particularly those on low incomes.

Pupils in Northern Ireland perform better than pupils in England and even those in high-performing London – this is not because of grammar schools

  • From age 5 until the teenage years, children in Northern Ireland display the highest scores on almost all key education and skill outcomes, performing at least level with or significantly above England on all measures.
  • Education and skill outcomes in Northern Ireland are also generally above those in London, which has been widely celebrated as an educational success story.
  • These findings for Northern Ireland are more positive than the picture shown in other international comparisons.
  • Higher educational performance is particularly apparent for children in Northern Ireland in low income families or families with low education levels. 
  • As almost all educational outcomes for pupils in Northern Ireland are measured between the ages of 3 and 11, the positive results for Northern Ireland are highly unlikely to reflect the impact of having attended grammar schools.


How have policy changes since devolution affected pupil performance in the UK nations?

  • Pupils in the UK will have been affected by significant policy changes in the early and mid-2000s, such as the abolition of league tables in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the ending of SATs tests in Scotland and Wales.
  • It is possible that the lower pupil performance seen in Wales and Scotland in some areas were driven by these changes; with direct evidence for this in Wales.
  • However, focusing solely on the impact league tables is too simplistic, as observed outcomes are highest in Northern Ireland, where league tables were also abolished.
  • Outcomes also differ by subject and skill, with worse reading outcomes in Wales and worse maths outcomes in Scotland. This suggests that more attention needs to be paid to differences in pedagogical approaches and the curriculum.
  • This is particularly important given the recent big changes and development of different school curriculums across the UK.