Rapid rise in junior maths

Michael Shaw reports on the latest international study

Mathematic skills of 10-year-olds have improved faster in England over the past nine years than anywhere else in the world.

Children in England performed 10 per cent better in an international maths test last year than they did in 1995, overtaking pupils in Australia and the United States.

The sharp improvement was revealed this week in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (Timss). Data from tests taken by more than 360,000 children in 46 countries also showed that the science attainment of primary children in England remains among the best in the world.

England's 14-year-olds were less successful in maths ranking ahead of the international average but below the average for comparable countries such as the United States.

Ministers this week said they were delighted with the maths result, claiming it demonstrated the effectiveness of the national numeracy strategy, launched in 1999. Scotland, which does not have such a strategy, has seen almost no improvement since 1995 when it was on a par with England. Wales was not in the study.

In the primary science tests England was outperformed only by Chinese Taipei and Singapore, which ranked at the top of all the league tables.

England's results had improved by 2 per cent in the eight years, principally thanks to better scores by girls, although they still lagged behind boys.

An analysis of the data by the National Foundation for Educational Research said that the speed with which girls were catching up in science "may add fuel to the debate about underachievement by boys". While scores for 10-year-olds have risen, there appeared to be no significant change in 14-year - olds' science and maths results.

In science the scores for 14-year-olds were better than both the world average and that for similar countries. They were only beaten by those in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Hong Kong.

Stephen Twigg, education minister, said the primary maths score showed that the numeracy strategy had brought dividends but was also a "testament to the hard work of teachers and pupils".

The Timss results contrast with the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study which examined the results of 15-year-olds in 41 countries.

Insufficient test data was available to include England officially in the tables. But the results which were available suggested the country had slipped seven places to 11th in science and 10 places to 18th in maths over the past three years.

Tim Collins, Tory education spokesman, said the Timms study was part of a "triple whammy" of bad news after this week's inspectors' report on reading and the Pisa findings. "Yet another authoritative study shows Britain's schools are performing much worse in maths than our international competitors, and little better in science," he said.

Barbara Ball, professional officer for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, said ministers were right to credit the numeracy strategy.

"The strategy has helped teachers pay more attention to their teaching, to get the children thinking out loud about maths problems and discussing them together in classes," she said. "Before it was a much more individualised approach with children working on their own."

Mrs Bell said the key stage 3 strategy had not been in place long enough to have had a similar impact on 14-year-olds' results.

Platform13 Timss 2003 is at www.nfer.ac.uk researchtimms2003.asp

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