ABOUT one in three primaries put forward their brightest 11-year-olds to sit GCSE-standard maths and English tests last summer.
This is despite concerns that the extension tests may put children under too much pressure, as only a tiny number manage to pass them in English, maths and science.
Budding mathematicians are the only pupils who have consistently improved their performance in tests which require them to be up to four years ahead of their classmates.
More 11-year-olds sat the challenging tests last summer, with 55,108 papers taken, compared to 52,164 in 1998. More than 23,700 promising primary mathematicians entered. One in 14 candidates passed - three times the success rate of 1996.
Peter Lacey, chair-elect of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, and deputy director of education for north-east Lincolnshire, believes the extension papers for maths pupils are a better way of stretching able pupils than pushing them to take GCSE early, as Education Secretary David Blunkett hopes.
Mr Lacey said: "The extension test is very good in that it requires bright children to learn a few extra skills and to use their existing mathematical toolkit to solve extremely challenging problems.
"GCSE requires a much larger toolkit but perhaps doesn't challenge children to use the toolkit they already have."
However, fewer than one in 50 of the 21,076 candidates passed English tests for the brightest 11-year-olds.
Some primaries entered practicall every pupil for the demanding tests in English, maths and science last summer, according to a detailed analysis by the Government quango which runs the tests.
Martin Tibbetts, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "I do not believe that these tests are worth bothering with; they are certainly not worth the money they cost to develop.
"National tests only measure a very limited number of skills and I do not see that the very small number of pupils who do reach the required level have any particular advantage when they start secondary school."
In secondary schools teachers' attitudes to the tests for the brightest 14 year-olds depend on the subject.
Advanced English tests for secondary pupils are now widely accepted, with many schools regarding the test as the ideal GCSE preparation for their brightest students, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority survey.
However, many secondaries believe that young mathematicians would be better off taking maths GCSE early, rather than wasting time on extra national tests.
But despite teachers' reservations, entry figures for the key stage 3 maths extension tests have risen gradually over the past three years. Last summer 3,317 teenagers took the tests but only 203 reached the required level, up from 125 in 1998.
A spokesman for the QCA said there were no plans to change the tests. He said: "The problem with extension tests is that only a very small proportion of the total cohort actually take them. Therefore it is difficult to make judgements based on year-on-year fluctuations."