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Primary maths low in league of nations

English nine-year-olds are struggling with mathematics, just like their older brothers and sisters, according to a major international comparison to be published next week.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study has already placed English 13-year-olds way down the international league table in a report last summer.

Next Wednesday the TIMSS, the largest exercise of its kind in the world, will publish results for half a million nine-year-olds in 26 countries. The findings will not be good news for English maths teachers, whose pupils are once again lagging substantially behind children from the Pacific Rim and eastern Europe. Like the English 13-year-olds, however, they will come out of the exercise with a good reputation for scientific understanding.

The publication of such a major study will increase the pressure to simplify the primary curriculum in favour of basic subjects. This is in line with the wishes of HM Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead and would also fit with the new Government's strong emphasis on primary school literacy and numeracy.

Although academics stress the difficulty of making accurate comparisons between different cultures, most acknowledge that mental arithmetic is an area of particular weakness in British classrooms.

Any changes to the curriculum must wait for SCAA's review of the national curriculum, which began earlier this year.

English children tend to do well in some aspects of mathematics - problem-solving and statistics, for example. But other failings put them in the bottom half of international lists. They also came last of nine industrialised nations in algebra and number work.

English 13-year-olds got an average of only 53 per cent of the official questions correct, while students in Singapore achieved 79 per cent, taking their country to the top of the table.

The story in science is much more optimistic. English 13-year-olds came sixth out of 27 countries in last summer's report.

The third TIMSS report is handled in Britain by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which this week refused to comment on the results.

A full analysis of the TIMSS report will appear in next week's Research Focus

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