National IQs and PISA: it changes everything

This article shows that the East Asian education systems that come out at the top of the PISA rankings sink to the bottom half of the table when national IQs are taken into account.

If a given group of pupils in the same class all have 100 per cent attendance, with the same teacher and the same amount of teacher attention, would we expect them all to perform equally in the end of term exam? Of course not. We would expect the ‘brighter’ pupils to outperform the ‘less bright’ ones. Hundreds of English schools use Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) taken in Y6 as the basis of admissions systems designed to produce ‘balanced comprehensive intakes’ in which the ability profile matches the national ability profile so far as possible. Part 4 of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘ explains how this works in the London Borough of Hackney and at Mossbourne Academy, one of the Hackney schools.

In my article about the government’s ‘Progress 8’ secondary school accountability system, of which I am highly critical, I argue for an alternative CATs – based system.

My evaluation of school effectiveness approach requires the production of scatter diagrams like the one shown in this article for Cumbria schools, where in the 1990s they were produced by the LEA every year, but largely ignored.

Now think about all the schools in England. If they were all equally effective and followed the same curriculum then they would all get equally good GCSE results right? Of course not, but here mainstream educational thinking takes a false turn. The almost universal assumption is that some pupils are disadvantaged by poverty, poor parenting or ethnic discrimination and that this accounts  for their poor performance. There is much talk of an ‘achievement gap’. In my book and in this article, I use evidence from my study of Mossbourne Academy and the Hackney admissions system to argue that this ‘achievement gap’ theory is incorrect. It is cognitive ability that counts. Pupils with similar CATs scores perform similarly regardless of social background or ethnicity. Pupils from more affluent backgrounds perform, on average, better than those from poorer homes because they are, on average,  brighter. Social background and even the quality of parenting make little difference by the age of 16. This is so contrary, not only to what politicians and the general public believe, and more importantly, to what they want to believe, that the facts do not see the light of day in mainstream educational discourse.

The evidence for this is in the latest book by international ‘intelligence expert’ James Flynn and is discussed in my review of his book.

Please now look again at the Cumbria schools scatter chart.

Note that the rank order of schools by GCSE exam results is completely different to the rank order of school effectiveness as determined from the chart. To find this out you have to do a little work. The regression line shows how, on average, GCSE results in Cumbria schools are driven by the mean cognitive ability of the Y11 cohorts in the schools. However some schools do better than average and those are to be found above the regression line. The greater the vertical distance above the regression line, the greater the effectiveness of the school.

You will see that on this basis ‘Gas Street Comprehensive’ (not its real name), with the worst GCSE performance, was more effective than the top performing school (the only selective grammar school in Cumbria).

So I wondered whether the same principle could be applied to the PISA international test results. To find out, I would need the equivalent of CATs scores. That was obviously a non starter so I thought about national mean IQ scores. In England we know there is a good correlation between parental education level and children’s performance at secondary school. The former is driven by parental cognitive ability/IQ. So if I could find data on national IQ scores I could use this as a proxy for the mean cognitive ability of the secondary age pupils in each country. Such national IQ data can be found here, but since publishing this article Richard Lynn has provided me with updated data which has been used in my update to this article. The scatter chart at the end of this article has also been updated.

The principal author, Richard Lynn, is a respected international authority on the study of intelligence. Now some of my readers may begin to get uncomfortable. Discussion of ‘intelligence’ brings to mind the very nasty racist theories of the Third Reich. However unless the validity of ‘general intelligence’ is accepted it is very hard to get past discrimination-based explanations for the huge variety in cognitive competence that exists in the national population. This issue is discussed in detail in Part 1 of my book.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky and the developmental school of educationalists, I believe that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but is plastic. It can be significantly enhanced by the right sort of schooling  and subsequently by the autonomous decisions made by adults throughout life. This too is addressed in James Flynn’s new book. I discuss the importance of ‘Plastic Intelligence’ here.

The scatter chart at the end of this article is the result of my applying these ideas to the 2015 PISA international test results. I entered the PISA test scores for maths for every PISA participating country  on the Y axis, the national IQ data , expressed as percentiles on the X axis and used Excel to compute the regression line. The IQ percentile is the proportion of the national population with an IQ below that figure. For example the mean UK IQ is 100, which is the 50th percentile.

The resulting scatter chart  for the PISA countries is very like my chart for Cumbria schools. There is the same very strong correlation ‘R’ of 88/89 per cent between cognitive ability/IQ and exam performance.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this. Just as the Cumbria selective grammar school got the best GCSE results, the three Asian countries with the top IQs, Singapore, South Korea and Japan, came out top in PISA. However, all three are (like the UK and USA) below the regression line and therefore in the bottom half of the rank order of nationally effective education systems.

So which country has the most effective education system? The answer according to my updated chart is Poland, followed by Ireland and Vietnam. The status of Poland and Ireland in my analysis result as much from the low national IQ score of 92 and 93 as from the good performances in the PISA tests.

So what are the guiding principles of the Irish education system? You can find these set out here in this 2007 government document. Eight years later PISA has vindicated this Irish approach, which is very different to the marketised model of the English system and to the very didactic methods in the East Asian countries that top the PISA results tables.

The basic principles of the Irish education system are those of the developmental school (Piaget, Vygotsky, Shayer, Adey etc) as set out in Part 5 of, Learning Matters’. The parallels to the 2007 Irish government education approach will be obvious to every reader of my book. The following examples begin on p12 of the Irish publication.

The pedagogic principles of the Revised Curriculum which characterise the above learning processes are as follows: the child’s sense of wonder and natural curiosity is a primary motivating factor in learning; the child is an active agent in his or her learning; learning is developmental in nature: the child’s existing knowledge and experience form the base for learning; the child’s immediate environment provides the context for learning; learning should involve guided activity and discovery methods; language is central in the learning process; the child should perceive the aesthetic dimension in learning; social and emotional dimensions are important factors in learning; learning is most effective when it is integrated; skills that facilitate the transfer of learning should be fostered; higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills should be fostered; collaborative learning should feature in the learning process; the range of individual difference should be taken into account in the learning process; assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning.

It is clear that the more collaborative methods of teaching are the most effective.
Pupils also need to develop personal and group skills so that they may cope with the
social context for learning, and in order to retain knowledge most effectively.
Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” underpins many approaches to teaching
and learning in the primary school curriculum – those tasks too difficult for the child
to solve alone can be accomplished with the help of adults/peers, through instruction,
discussion and encouragement while the child internalises the ‘how to do’ bit of the
task as part of his/her inner speech for future reference. Hannan (1996), an independent
expert in how boys and girls learn, develops this idea further, and recommends a
“third/third/third” approach to proximal development, with pupils spending a third
of proximal learning time in friendship pairings/groupings, a third in single gender
non-friendship pairings and a third in mixed gender pairings, so that within one half
term everyone works with everyone else.

Ireland, whose children stand at the 32nd IQ percentile outperform those of the UK at the 50th IQ percentile in maths. Ireland has no grammar schools, no Academies and no Free Schools. Surely the DfE should be looking for inspiration a short distance across the Irish sea rather than at the under performing  systems of East Asia.

The poor performance of these  PISA topping countries on my effectiveness chart follows from their very high national IQ scores.

I give an explanation for the very high national IQs of China, Korea and Japan here.

My findings are so contrary to the mainstream view that they need to be checked. I would be happy to forward my full Excel file on receipt of an email. I will leave it to others to produce the scatter charts for Science and Reading.
















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7 Responses to National IQs and PISA: it changes everything

  1. dodiscimus says:

    This is interesting but is there not a problem with the effect of education on IQ, to which you refer in your post? It’s definitely not my area of expertise but I seem to remember that there are examples of population IQs increasing considerably as a result of major educational changes e.g. in developing countries extending the amount of schooling. If that’s correct that educational effectiveness can affect IQ then an alternative argument is that the high performing E.Asian countries have high IQ because of the highly effective education systems and, equally, the low Irish IQ is a reflection of a relatively ineffective education system. Your argument would then become circular. I can see that it is a different argument for Cumbria where the differing CAT scores are a result of selection (overt or by catchment) but, whilst I know it is an area of contention, my impression was that any differences between countries or ethnic groups are mostly environmental rather than genetic. That still leaves open the possibility that most of this difference is cultural and not a result of the different education systems (performance of SE Asian children in Australian schools for example), at which point I get lost in trying to decide if that matters.
    Best wishes


  2. You are referring to the ‘Flynn effect’ in which IQ scores increase in countries with developed education systems. This is significant over decades. This may indeed be a factor in the high IQs of East Asian countries. However Flynn himself puts it down to more general industrialisation raising the cognitive demand of a higher proportion of jobs. In the article I link to I propose another cultural explanation.

    However such high IQ children should be performing better now and do in countries with more effective education systems.

    Similarly the low Irish national IQ may well result from failures of the education system of the past but the Irish education system now produces better outcomes for such children and for brighter children as well. The implication is that East Asian children now would do even better in the Irish education system than in the Asian system, which is now less developmental.

    If you read the articles on this site you will see that I argue that the focus of all education systems should be the raising of the cognitive ability of the child through the right kind of teaching and learning. Children become cleverer in a general sense and therefore perform better in that way that cleverer children do


  3. dodiscimus says:

    I think I follow you, but I think there is still an assumption here that I’m not sure about. Suppose for a moment that there is no significant genetic difference in IQ between E.Asian and Irish populations. If that were the case then you would expect the better education system to produce a higher national average IQ and higher PISA outcomes, wouldn’t you? If you are certain that the bulk of the national IQ difference is genetic then your argument sticks, but not if the national IQ difference is educational. And if it is cultural – tiger moms and all that – then it might be harder for education systems to add value to children that are getting so much developmental input anyway. You may well be right; I’m not trying to argue differently, just asking questions because I wonder if there are alternative interpretations.


  4. “The status of Poland and Ireland in my analysis result as much from the low national IQ score of 92 and 93 as from the good performances in the PISA tests.”

    Lynn might actually commission and pay for a modern IQ study in Ireland and Poland. PISA is likely significantly more robust and repeatable then the studies he has used that have been echoed repeatedly all over the internet.


    • You make a fair point about the unreliability of national IQ data that I acknowledge in both this and the updated article.

      After this first article was published Professor Lynn contacted me to inform me that I had used an out of date version of his data. He provided me with his latest data, which enabled me to retrospectively correct the chart.

      However, despite the unreliability of the national IQ data for some countries the regression line still produces a correlation between mean national IQs and mean PISA maths scores of 89%.

      My personal research on the correlation between mean Cognitive Ability Test scores (CATs), a form of IQ test, and mean GCSE performance for individual schools produces an identical pattern. This too leads to the debunking of all sorts of claims about both the quality of particular sorts of schools (eg Academies v LA maintained) and the ‘attainment gap’ between pupils from affluent and poor backgrounds. See

      My most important argument in relation to the PISA results is that the high mean national IQs in the East Asian participants largely account for their high scores. Failure to recognise this leads to invalid support for the education systems and approaches to teaching and learning in those countries. It does indeed, ‘change everything’.

      In relation to those particular conclusions the national IQ data are very strong. Not only that, but UK school attainment data at all Key Stages shows the same strong correlation between cognitive ability scores and attainment for children based on ethnicity, where East Asian children born in the UK do just as well in the UK education system (shown to underperform in PISA) as the children in the Far Eastern systems.

      This follows the same pattern as that revealed by DfE analysis of school attainment and ethnicity.

      All this leads support for the contention of my book, Learning Matters, that the raising of cognitive ability in all pupils of all abilities and ages, through the exploitation of sound research on ‘plastic intelligence’ should be the focus of our own education system , which is flawed and corrupted by the marketisation paradigm.


  5. This comment by Y Yn left on my ‘The Growth Mindset misunderstood’ article is highly relevant.

    “Look at any exam-intensive guide in China or in Asia and you find that it uses simple reverse engineering techniques on exam questions over the years (TOEFL, AP, …) giving the user the method of identification, the requisite base knowledge, the correct approach/solution to any minutae change in variable in problem formulation but almost nothing in terms of open-ended real-world questions of unknown complexity, unknown scope and unknown consequences (which mirrors real life).”


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