Britain has consistently lagged behind competitor countries in mathematical achievement, a problem that was underlined this week by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
A study commissioned by the institute reveals that children in England and Wales are two years behind in arithmetic compared with counterparts in other European countries, despite being at school for 18 months longer. The study, by Helvia Bierhoff, is thought to be the first to attempt a systematic comparison of teaching methods and textbooks.
English children are still using their fingers to count while pupils in Germany and Switzerland are able to do relatively sophisticated sums in their head. One reason may be that British children spend less than two-thirds of their time on number work. In German and Swiss classrooms, mental arithmetic is given precedence over written methods (to the age of nine) and calculators are introduced much later.
Children in Germany and Switzerland tend to work from a common textbook. The emphasis is to consolidate each step of learning. An eight-year-old will have six times the number of exercises on a topic than a child in England.
The study will lend weight to concerns in Scotland about maths. The findings of the 1992 International Assessment of Educational Progress, which focused on the achievements of pupils aged nine and 13 in maths and science in 20 countries, showed that above-average scores by Scottish pupils in maths at the age of nine were not replicated at age 13. They also performed less well in several key topics, including basic numeracy skills.
The last AAP report in 1993 showed that the decline in pupil performance between the previous survey years of 1983 and 1988, particularly in basic number work at P4 and P7, had largely been arrested but not addressed. There was also a "statistically significant decline" in performance at S2 in four of the 15 aspects of maths tested.
Next month's AAP report will be based on the achievement of 9,000 pupils who were assessed in May and June of 1994, three years after the 5-14 guidelines on maths were introduced.