There is little evidence to suggest that overhauling the maths curriculum and exams in secondary schools will close the performance gap between schools in England and other countries, according to academics.
Instead of focusing on reforming secondaries, the government should do more to support children in preschools and nurseries, a report published by the University of London's Institute of Education has found.
The study, published last week, was widely reported for its finding that the attainment gap between the most able children in maths in England and high-performing nations such as Taiwan and Hong Kong widens between the ages of 10 and 16.
Children's minister Elizabeth Truss seized on the research as evidence to justify the government's reform agenda. But the academics said there was "little evidence" that secondary schools were responsible for England's disappointing position in some international rankings. While brighter children fall behind during secondary school, the average achievement gap for all pupils does not increase after children leave primary school, the research found.
"A clear implication for policymakers is that it is not during secondary school that the leading East Asian countries pull away from England in terms of school pupils' math skills," the report said. "Reforming the secondary school system may not be the most effective way for England to 'catch up'."
The report recommends that politicians reform primary and preschool maths, run schemes for gifted and talented children and help disadvantaged pupils to improve basic skills during their early years.
The academics - John Jerrim from the Institute of Education and Alvaro Choi from the University of Barcelona - came to their conclusions using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study.