English teachers are trying to do too much and end up achieving less - "the complex pedagogy, lack of goal-clarity and dissipation of teacher effort result in a wide variation between the levels of quality in schools," according to Professor David Reynolds and Shaun Farrell of Newcastle University, whose long-awaited Worlds Apart? report was published by the Office for Standards in Education yesterday.
Some findings were highlighted by Panorama last month. The programme prompted a call for a return to more whole-class teaching, as in countries such as Taiwan.
The chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, said that British schools should aim to use whole-class teaching for 60 per cent of the time in mathematics and 50 per cent of the time across other subjects, rather than the present estimated 25 per cent.
The study itself pulls together several research projects on international comparisons of performance in mathematics and science between 1964 and the early 1990s.
The authors acknowledge that international comparisons are notoriously unreliable because of the difficulty in separating educational from cultural influences.
Whole-class teaching is just one of many factors which appear to raise achievement in maths and science, and, the report stresses, it is "high-quality, interactive whole-class instruction", not lecturing, that works.
But the report concludes that cultural differences alone cannot explain Britain's poor performance, which has deteriorated relative to other countries since the mid-1960s. "Other societies could claim as many, or more, 'mitigating factors'", it says, and culture would not affect the marked differences between our performance in the sub-areas of maths, such as algebra or arithmetic, or explain why our 16 to 19 year-olds do so much better relative to other countries than our 5 to 16 year-olds.
In general, English pupils do slightly better in science than maths, but not appreciably so; maths performance is poor overall but with some strength in data-handling and geometry; English children have a much wider range of achievements, with a greater proportion doing very badly, and there is a greater variation in "opportunity to learn" in England. Scottish pupils, contrary to popular belief, perform no better in maths and science.
In Pacific Rim countries, factors contributing to success include the high status of teachers and the high intellectual calibre of new recruits, an aspirational culture, longer school days and shorter holidays, more homework, and most importantly, the absence of the Western belief that there will always be some children who are bound to fail - instead, all are expected to reach a reasonable standard.
Classroom factors include mixed ability teaching in the early years, interactive whole-class teaching (used for 50-70 per cent of the time) in which the teacher ensures that the whole class has grasped a point before moving on, frequent testing, keeping children behind to finish work, or keeping them down a year until they have reached the appropriate standard, the use of standard textbooks so that teacher time is not wasted producing endless worksheets, and concentrating on a small number of attainable goals.
The report found that although some other European countries had dropped down the international league table over the past 25 years, only England had fallen so dramatically in all aspects of mathematics.