More than a fifth of 15-year-old students in the UK are "low performers" in maths, according to an international report.
The study, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), showed that 22 per cent of the teenagers struggled with arithmetic, with 17 per cent below par in reading, and 15 per cent in science.
Eleven per cent of UK students were low performers across all three subjects, ranking the UK 21st out of 64 countries, behind nations like Poland and Vietnam.
The results, from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey, revealed that students who are low performers at age 15 are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attain better-paying and more-rewarding jobs.
The survey looked at data provided by countries between 2003 and 2012, but the UK only had comparable figures from 2006, since when the share of low performers has not significantly changed.
In the UK, students who were socio-economically disadvantaged, were female or had no or very little pre-primary education were more likely to have a low performance in maths. Those who repeated a grade or who were enrolled in a vocational programme were also likely to underperform.
'More likely to play truant'
According to the research, low-performing students play truant more often, spend less time doing homework – on average 3.5 hours a week in 2012 – and persevere less than better-performing students.
It was also found that pupils are less likely to be low performers in schools where teachers are more supportive, where teacher morale is higher and where there are more creative extra-curricular activities on offer.
Overall, the study, titled Low-Performing Students: why they fall behind and how to help them succeed, says that around 4.5 million 15-year-olds in OECD countries – more than one in four – fail to achieve the most basic level of proficiency in reading, mathematics and/or science.
OECD's director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, said: "The social and economic gains from tackling low performance dwarf any conceivable cost of improvement.
"Education policy and practice can help overcome this issue. It needs to be made a priority and given the necessary resources so that every child can succeed at school."
To combat the cycle of disengagement and low performance, the report makes a number of recommendations such as identifying low performers and designing a tailored policy strategy. It also stresses reducing inequalities in access to early education, and providing targeted support to disadvantaged schools or families.
Pisa defines "low performers" as 15-year-old students who score below Level 2 on its maths, reading and science assessments.
Level 2 is considered the baseline level of proficiency that is required to participate fully in modern society.