Maths failure lingers after curriculum revolution

David Budge

"Rather good at science but could do much better at maths" concludes a 26-country survey on English nine-year-olds. These findings are very close to the same study's findings on our 13-year-olds last November. David Budge reports

The introduction of a national curriculum has failed to arrest England's tumble down the international primary maths performance tables.

The latest assessment of how our nine-year-olds compare with their contemporaries in 25 other countries makes fairly dismal reading and will harden the Government's resolve to improve numeracy standards in primary schools.

Statistics drawn from the Third International Maths and Science Study show that the performance of Years 4 and 5 children in England was significantly lower than those of pupils in about half the countries which took part in the 1995 testing exercise.

English children did relatively well in two mathematical areas - Data representation, analysis and probability and Geometry - where they finished above the international mean. But they have a shakier grasp of Whole numbers, Fractions and proportionality, Measurement, estimation, and number sense and Patterns, relations and functions.

The authors of the report, Sue Harris, Wendy Keys and Cres Fernandes, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, say that the relative position of England seems to have deteriorated slightly compared with the United States, Canada and Ireland.

But, predictably, it is the vastly superior performance of the Pacific Rim countries that is the most striking finding of the TIMSS study. Children in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore all scored significantly higher marks than the English. In fact, Thailand was the only Asian country surveyed that was on a par with England.

Only 7 per cent of the English children were placed in the top 10 per cent internationally, compared with 39 per cent of Singapore's children and 23 per cent of the Japanese. Furthermore, only 39 per cent of the Year 5 English children finished in the top half, against 82 per cent in Singapore and 79 per cent in Japan.

European countries such as the Netherlands and Hungary also did significantly better in these categories - 13 per cent of Dutch youngsters and 11 per cent of Hungarians were included in the top 10 per cent, and 72 per cent of the Dutch pupils were placed in the top half. The Hungarian figure was 56 per cent.

The survey also shows that Austrian nine-year-olds have a substantial lead over the English. Greece, Iceland and Portugal recorded even lower marks than we did, however, as did the Year 4 Norwegian pupils, but they start school two years after English children.

Comparison of the English-speaking countries' scores also casts England in a poor light. Australia, Canada, Ireland and the United States all achieved significantly higher marks. The Scots were on the same level and only New Zealand did significantly worse in Year 4. These findings are worrying because a 1991 study carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Progress suggested that the Canadians, Irish and Americans were all performing at the same level as the English.

The lower-than-average increase in English children's scores between Years 4 and 5 is another of the study's disturbing findings.

But the English children's performance in the Geometry section of the maths test produced one narrow beam of sunshine. In this one area the English children outscored, albeit narrowly, both the Singaporeans and the Japanese.

Moreover, as the study's authors point out: "These (English Geometry) results represent the highest mean scores for pupils in both Years 4 and 5 across all of the mathematics categories."

Nevertheless, that will be seen as scant consolation for the relatively poor overall performance.

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David Budge

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