OECD: Tunisia beats UK for poor students

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22 June 2011: A new report by the OECD shows that disadvantaged British teenagers are less likely to succeed at school than similar students from Tunisia, Slovenia or Poland.

The study* compared science scores of 15 year old students from 65 countries to identify ‘resilient’ students: those successfully overcoming a disadvantaged background to score high grades at school.

oecd50 logo resizedIt ranked their success by country. Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea did particularly well, with more than half of all their disadvantaged students defined as resilient. Japan, Canada, Portugal and Finland also scored highly.

Room for improvement

The UK was less successful. Only around one quarter of disadvantaged teenagers were categorised as resilient. This was far below the OECD average of 31% and left the UK trailing not just Australia and the USA, but also most EU countries.

In fact, the UK ranked 28th out of 35 OECD economies and 35th out of the 65 countries taking part overall. This reinforces other recent studies highlighting low social mobility in modern Britain.

Extra lessons, greater confidence

So why are some disadvantaged students more resilient than others? The study highlighted the importance of regular extra lessons and the crucial role played by high self-confidence, stating that ” the more self-confident students are, the greater their odds of being resilient.” This was true even after accounting for other factors, including the amount of time spent in class each week.

The report also argues that a general increase in the amount of regular lessons to students of all backgrounds will not narrow the attainment gap. Instead, it recommends that extra lessons should be targeted carefully at students from disadvantaged families.


The OECD’s conclusions broadly match SHINE’s own experience of funding educational projects for disadvantaged students. For example, a recent evaluation of our SHINE on Saturday programme demonstrated its successful use of regular extra lessons and positive, creative teaching techniques to improve students’ confidence, self-esteem and attitudes to learning.

Another core SHINE initiative is DigiSmart. Its regular programme of computer-based teaching sessions delivers dramatic improvements in literacy and ICT scores. DigiSmart’s positive approach also transforms students’ self-confidence and motivation: ” Her confidence has gone sky high,” said one parent of her DigiSmart daughter; ” even her maths skills have rocketed because now she’s not afraid to put her hand up.”

Moving forward

SHINE is now funding more of these core programmes than ever before in order to provide similar opportunities to thousands more children. We want many more disadvantaged students to develop the resilience that will help them succeed not only at school, but also in later life.

*Against the odds: disadvantaged students who succeed in school, OECD, 2011. Click here to download a PDF copy of this report.

The report’s findings are also summarised in PISA in Focus 5, OECD, June 2011.