Around 90,000 more primary pupils need to achieve the expected standard at the end of primary for England to be considered “world class” in maths, new research says.
The analysis, published by the Education Policy Institute and UCL Institute of Education, also revealed that gap between those who are doing well and struggling at primary school is one of the largest in the world.
The report English Education: world class in primary? uses data from the 2015 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in which ten-year-olds in England were ranked tenth in the world.
The authors, John Jerrim, professor of social statistics at UCL Institute of Education, and Natalie Perera and Peter Sellen, both of the EPI, found that while England compared reasonably well with other nations, there is a “long tail of underperformance”.
“The biggest cause for concern is the huge gulf between England’s top performing primary pupils, and those lagging behind at the bottom – one of the largest out of all developed countries,” Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at the Education Policy Institute, said.
"If we want to match standards in some of the world-leading nations and secure greater equity in our education system, more must be done to raise the attainment of our lowest, and often most vulnerable, pupils."
By converting the Timss scores to the scores used in the key stage 2 maths tests, known as Sats, taken in England, the report estimates that to match the performance of pupils in the top five countries – Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan – 90 per cent of children in England would need to reach the expected standard in the English Sats maths test, with an average scaled score of 107.
In 2017, 75 per cent of pupils in England reached the expected score in maths, with an average scaled score of 104.
To reach the expected standard, a pupil must score 100 points. The report found that the difference between the highest and lowest performing pupils in England was around 18.6 points, compared to 16.2 points for the top-performing nations.
England had the third-largest gap between those doing well and performing poorly in maths at age ten among OECD member nations, with just New Zealand and Turkey having a greater variation in performance, the report’s authors said.
Looking at the 2016 Sats results – the report’s authors found that no local authority had 90 per cent of pupils reaching the expected standard in 2016, meaning no authority had reached the “world class” benchmark.
The report has been criticised by the NEU teaching union, which is concerned that the authors do not address the issues raised.
"This is a disappointing report, which offers little that can help the real work of school improvement," said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU.
“Primary schools in England are hampered by a narrow and test-driven curriculum, which overworks teachers and damages the classroom experience of children.
“The effect of the EPI report will be to make this situation worse. It will ramp up the pressure for higher test scores in mathematics, and in the process narrow further the curriculum. The consequences for primary education of this pressure are not imagined or discussed."
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We agree with the conclusion of the EPI report that more targeted support is needed for vulnerable pupils in primary and early years education, not just for mathematics, but in general. It is a key priority in raising standards.
“High-performing pupils do very well in our schools, but lower performers often start from a lower base and fall further behind at an early stage. The gap is then extremely difficult to close.
“Schools already work very hard within tight budgets to support their vulnerable pupils, but their resources are limited. What we need is a national evidence-based programme and funding to provide additional classroom support where it is needed most."