Researchers at the London School of Economics have cast new light on the mystery that has puzzled politicians and educationists for the past year: why are English children performing markedly better at science than maths?
The findings of their international study will strengthen speculation that the conundrum can be partially solved by calculating the amount of time that is devoted to each subject - and by scrutinising the range of maths and science topics that the national curriculum covers.
A team at the LSE's Centre for Educational Research discovered that the English and Welsh allocated less time to maths than every other country in their study - Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg and Portugal. In England and Wales, 11 to 16-year-olds are expected to spend between 2.5 and 3 hours a week on maths. In France and Luxembourg, the timetable allows for 3-4 hours of maths and in Austria and Belgium (Flemish), 3-5 hours.
The English and Welsh spend more time on science (2.5-5 hours) than several of the other countries. In France, the recommended time allocation is 1.5-3. 5 hours and in Luxembourg, only 1-2 hours. In Austria and Belgium (Flemish), science is allocated 3-6 hours.
The LSE research, which was funded by the European Commission, follows a series of reports generated by the 41-country Third International Maths and Science Study carried out in 1995. They showed that English children had done relatively well in written science tests at nine and 13 but were below the international average in maths. The recent news that English 13-year-olds had done much better in the applied maths and science TIMSS tests provided some consolation, but there is continuing anxiety about maths standards.
This new LSE study has confirmed that the English and Welsh maths curriculum is very broad - particularly in comparison with France, which outscored England in the written TIMSS maths tests. Geometry, functions, relations and equations are heavily emphasised in France whereas a much wider range of topics is examined in England. In fact none of the other countries attempts to cover so much maths territory as the United Kingdom.
In the sciences, the curriculum content is also much broader in England and Wales than in virtually any other country. Only biology is taught in the first stage of lower secondary education in several countries, with physics and chemistry being introduced later.
Dr Anne West, director of the LSE's educational research centre, emphasised that there were no simple explanations for England's inconsistent performance in science and maths. "Nevertheless, in our view, these findings provide valuable information that can offer some clues as to the relative performance of English pupils in TIMSS," she said.
"The different amounts of time devoted to the two subjects may be significant. It is also possible that our broader maths and science curricula have had an impact. The TIMSS tests may be better matched to our science curriculum than the maths that our schools teach."
"Quality and assessment in secondary education: an exploration of curricula and examinations, Year 1", by Anne West, Ann Edge and Eleanor Stokes, Centre for Educational Research, LSE.