THE KEY to maths success could be a later start, better classroom resources and less setting or streaming, long-term research into Japanese teaching suggests.
Work by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research supports criticisms of primary school setting, which was advocated in a recent report by the Office for Standards in Education.
Pupils in Japan - where setting is largely absent - start formal schooling at six, around 18 months later than in England, but within two years are out-achieving English children in maths.
Schools in Japan favour inclusive whole-class teaching which emphasises co-operation instead of competition with children participating on "an equal and shared footing," said Julia Whitburn, who has spent several years researching maths teaching in Japan for the NIESR.
The system requires all children to start formal schooling at roughly the same point. The key is the two years of kindergarten which bring children up to the same level and instill good behaviour and learning habits and social skills.
"This minimises the differences created by disadvantage," Ms Whitburn told a recent London education conference.
English reception classes, by contrast, take children of widely differing backgrounds and abilities and start them almost immediately on formal learning, widening the gap.
Until recently the English could point to the success of high maths achievers - who outperformed the highest achievers in Japan - as a benefit of moving gifted children on quickly.
But even they have now been overtaken. Japan boasts a narrower range of pupil achievement, but at all levels, its pupils do better.
Ms Whitburn said the Japanese curriculum is also more uniform, with a strong emphasis on step-by-step learning and on the importance of effort rather than natural ability, encouraging all children to aim for success.
Teachers in England have always used a wider variety of methods to teach maths - at least until the pilots of the numeracy hour - which Ms Whitburn said helped more able pupils but simply confused the others.
Although Japanese pupils sit in rows, the lessons are far from "talk and chalk" - "People are always surprised that Japanese classrooms are extremely noisy," Ms Whitburn said. "There is a lot of questioning and answering. Children are very involved in coming out to demonstrate things to the class to take the lesson forward."
Classrooms are modestly furnished but every pupil has his or her own high-quality resource pack. "Money is clearly being spent in the right place," Ms Whitburn said.
An analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research of 20 research studies in the United Kingdom and the United States has found that setting had no overall impact on pupil achievement.