In a 19-country survey, only Singapore, which is currently seen as the most academically successful nation in the world, did better overall than England.
This unusually heartening finding is contained in the latest report to be generated by the Third International Maths and Science Study. The researchers have already produced two reports which suggested that England's nine-year-olds and 13-year-olds are relatively good at science but below average in written maths tests.
This new report, just published in the United States and not yet available in Britain, contains almost nothing but good news for England's maligned teaching force.
The English tests were funded by the Office for Standards in Education but carried out in 1995 by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Sue Harris, one of the NFER researchers, confirmed that the findings were a cause for celebration. "This is very, very encouraging. The English pupils' performance in this [applied] aspect was much better than in the written tests. This reflects well on primary schools as well as secondaries."
The new report has less welcome news for Scotland. It confirms that Scottish 13-year-olds are behind the English in both maths and science. They shared sixth place overall with Romania, finishing behind not only Singapore and England but Switzerland, Australia and Sweden. The Scots pupils who took part in the survey were, however, slightly younger than the English and had spent less time in secondary school.
Although England finished seventh in the practical maths tasks with 64 per cent, only Singapore did substantially better. It scored 70 per cent, while the other five leading maths countries - Switzerland, Sweden, Norway,Australia and Romania - were only one or two percentage points ahead of England. In science, the English pupils challenged for top place, scoring 71 per cent compared to the Singaporeans' 72 per cent. And this remarkable tally gave them the second-highest combined maths and science average.
The practical tasks were undertaken by 450 children in 50 English schools which had also taken part in the written tests. They required pupils to employ a range of equipment and materials and tested skills such as weighing and measuring and the use of scientific and mathematical procedures.
There were five science tasks, five maths exercises and another two which demanded mathematical and scientific skills and knowledge. The children's performance was marked on the basis of their answers to response-sheets which elicited evidence of specific skills and thinking processes. Other work by pupils, such as graphs and scale drawings, was also assessed.
"The written tests tested recall but these tasks tested pupils' ability to design and carry out exercises and then analyse their data," Sue Harris said. "These skills have been developed in England because of the national curriculum's emphasis on using and applying mathematics and experimental and investigative science. It shows that we will have to be careful in reforming the curriculum. In an effort to increase our number skills we may risk putting too much emphasis on certain areas of mathematics and spend less time developing the skills that enabled us to do so well in this study."
Free copies of the report are available from the TIMSS International Study Center, Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, Campion Hall, School of Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167, USA. Also available on the World Wide Web: http:wwwcsteep.bc.edutimss