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Pisa, Pirls and other wisdom

Adi Bloom's round-up of the year's most important research stories.

Education research this year confirmed the hunches of many pessimistic teachers.

The Primary Review, the largest inquiry into primary teaching for 40 years, suggested that national tests were narrowing the curriculum and that there was no evidence they had raised standards.

Pupils were also growing up too quickly in a society that seemed increasingly perilous and celebrity-obsessed, but in which schools acted as safe havens.

Other research confirmed suspicions about which types of pupils are likely to perform better than others. In July a study published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that girls begin to outperform boys at nursery, and continue to do so until the age of 16, when they trounce boys in almost every subject at GCSE.

But efforts to address this gender imbalance are often misguided, according to research published two months later. The Equal Opportunities Commission found that teachers who cater for boys' and girls' different learning styles tend to reinforce stereotypes.

Besides, the Commission said, social class and poverty are much greater causes of underachievement than gender.

This was echoed in a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, also published in September. It concluded that 10 years of Labour policies have done little to tackle the social divide between children whose parents are able to support their learning at home and those whose parents cannot. While many working-class children are now materially comfortable, they suffer from a poverty of expectations at home. The researchers concluded that this could not be addressed merely with the introduction of extended schools.

The failure of government to tackle the problems facing British pupils was further highlighted in November, when the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) was published. This revealed that England's 11-year-olds now rank 15th in the world for reading, below Hungary and Bulgaria. Previously they were in third place.

These findings were backed up by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study, published this month, which showed that the ranking of Britain's 15-year-olds had plummeted since 2000, although the UK's scores were around average in maths and reading for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and better than most in science.

A series of reports intended to help teachers tackle that drop in standards were published this year.

The Institute of Education's Teaching and Learning Research Programme produced a top 10 list of teaching principles. This list, outlined on a poster sent out to all schools, emphasised the need to consult pupils and draw on their home experiences in class.

Meanwhile, Professor Peter Tymms, from Durham University, recommended that schools allocate the best teachers to the youngest primary pupils. The benefits of this good start are felt throughout children's school careers.

And David Jesson, of York University, found that GCSE science pupils are more likely to secure top grades and go on to do well at A-level if they study single science subjects, rather than a combined double qualification.

The overload of reports offering advice may have left some teachers in a state of tear-filled confusion. But they are not allowed to get upset - researchers from Birkbeck College in London showed that teacher stress could adversely affect pupils' results.


Today's primary pupils have ambitious dreams for the future. Exeter University academics revealed that children's ambitions now include ending drought in Africa, finding Osama Bin Laden and developing environmentally friendly flying cars.

And research from Alabama University found that while children used to be scared of ghosts and darkness, they now feared gunshots and anthrax poisoning. Should all this talk of gunshots make teachers think they are surrounded by wild animals, that too can be backed up by research.

Pam Jarvis, of Leeds Metropolitan University, linked the behaviour of pupils in the playground to that of monkeys and chimps in the jungle. She claimed that boys' and girls' patterns of play mirrored those of their primate counterparts.

"Often adults think kids are just letting off steam in the playground, or making a nuisance of themselves," she said. "But they're learning how to socialise."


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