The mathematical items used in TIMSS were classified under several headings. While some classifications were bizarre, most were appropriate. "Number" consisted mainly of items of the kind which we were told should have benefited from the reforms of the 1980s, and which should have been further strengthened by early versions of the national curriculum. In these areas we performed very poorly.
The extent of the problem is such that we have a responsibility to the next generation to identify likely causes and to correct them - rather than try to make people feel better by diverting attention to "median scores", or by highlighting irrelevant discrepancies in the data from Thailand.
"Number" is what pupils aged nine to 10 and 13 to 14 have the most experience of being taught directly. Items in other TIMSS categories were generally more "qualitative" and could often be tackled using commonssense methods. Thus one cannot simply balance our poor performance in "number" against performance in other areas. Moreover, our weakness in "number" raises serious questions about older pupils' ability to develop subsequently in other areas of mathematics and science - as those in higher education well know (England did not take part in that part of TIMSS designed for pupils aged 17, so we were spared this denouement).
Journalists and politicians are bound to give their preferred spin to a story. But if we are to achieve a rational consensus among professionals involved in education, it does not help for influential individuals and editorials to claim the moral high ground by labelling those who do not share their priorities as "back-to-basics" backwoodsmen.
Dr TONY GARDINER, President, The Mathematical Association, University of Birmingham, Birmingham