ATTEMPTS to teach reading, writing and number to pre-school children in England is damaging their ability to learn maths, according to a new study.
English children are falling behind their Japanese counterparts because they start school younger and many do not have the social and behavioural skills necessary to learn, according to the study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
As a result, English primary teachers spend more time dealing with bad behaviour than their Japanese equivalents and their pupils are more than four times as likely to be "off task" during lessons.
Dr Julia Whitburn, a senior researcher at the institute and the author of the report, concludes that although the national numeracy strategy will go some way to boost performance in primary schools it does not go far enough.
Previous international comparisons have shown that English nine and 13-year-olds lag behind their contemporaries in many other industrialised nations, even though they do well in some areas of maths, such as geometry. But this new detailed analysis reveals how early the gap begins to form.
The study examined three Tokyo elementary and four London primary schools in 1995 and 1996. A sample of 415 six and seven-year-olds st specially-devised maths tests, their textbooks and lesson content were analysed and classroom practice was observed.
English six-year-olds were found to do better in the tests, showing the impact of their earlier start to formal schooling. Japanese children start school in the April after their sixth birthday, by which time most English children have been at school for 18 months.
However, within a year the English children had fallen behind, according to Dr Whitburn.
She concluded that English children's maths skills could be improved if nurseries concentrated on developing social behaviour and informal learning skills and left formal learning to schools.
She welcomed the introduction of the numeracy strategy for establishing a common structure to maths lessons and including some whole-class teaching.
But she warned that teachers needed more training and recommended that each should be given a manual with specific notes on the maths to be taught and the methods to be used. She added that the quality of British textbooks must be improved to reflect current research findings.
'Strength in Numbers: Learning maths in Japan and England' is available from The National Institute of Economic and Social Research on 0171 222 7665 price pound;12.99