Nineteen countries took part in practical tests for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and England ran out second in science and sixth in mathematics. The 424 Scottish pupils in 48 schools came fourth in science but 13th in maths. Singapore topped both categories. The Scots were younger than their peers in any other country but had more years of formal schooling than most.
Surprisingly, the S2 pupils did not do well in applying calculators in maths tests, although the Inspectorate has recommended cutting down the use of calculators to allow a focus on the basics. Fewer than half (49 per cent) of young Scots passed the calculator tasks against 62 per cent of English pupils, who headed that section.
Scotland's overall score in mathematics was 62 per cent, against 67 per cent for England and 71 per cent for Singapore. The Scottish Office research and intelligence unit points out that relative rankings in maths were similar to previously reported written tests.
In science, Scotland ranked 13th in written tests but fourth in practical tasks where pupils recorded an average score of 64 per cent. England was up at 71 per cent, pipped by Singapore at 72 per cent.
Government advisers said: "We can only speculate that the extensive provision of laboratories, equipment and teaching of practical skills made a significant contribution to our good performance."
Most countries scored better in maths than in science but Scotland outscored 10 other countries with the same or better performance in written science tests.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, commented: "Considerable emphasis is given to practical work in our science classes within secondary schools and it appears from these results that this is pay-ing dividends in terms of performance. In mathematics, our pupils have been achieving successes on a national basis and we need to extend this further to enhance our competitive edge against other countries.
"HMI recently announced a number of recommendations on good practice in teaching mathematics and these should ultimately help our pupils match the best from around the world."
comment, page 19 Copies of Practical Skills in Mathematics and Science are available from the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department.