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Take heart! We are world beaters

First the good news: our pupils have better access to computers than children in any other country. In terms of high-tech classrooms, Britain is truly world class.

On the face of it, this doesn't mean much. What really matters, surely, is that our pupils should do well in the basics: reading, maths and science. Yet, as the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study demonstrates, our children are (or appear to be) distinctly average in these essential subjects.

It would be easy to be plunged into gloom by these disappointing results, but that would be a mistake. For a start, it appears our strong showing in 2000 was a statistical blip. Finding that we have taken a tumble down the latest league tables does not necessarily mean we are falling behind other countries, simply that we were never quite as good as we thought we were.

We cannot afford to be complacent. As Donald Hirsch says (page 22), there are lessons which can help us to improve, without resorting to dodgy quick-fix strategems (see Alan Smithers, right). One timely warning is that selection by ability does nothing to improve standards. It simply leads to a greater gap in performance between the haves and have-nots. Moreover, British schools that have introduced setting across all subjects performed worse in the Pisa tests than those that limited it to just a few classes. Setting can be a very useful tool in certain subjects as children move up through school, but ministers should avoid the temptation to impose blanket solutions.

Ed Balls is on solid ground in proposing additional support for children who fall behind in the 3Rs. The Secretary of State's Children's Plan should also help pupils overcome some of the learning barriers that hold many of them back. Too often, failure to achieve at school originates from problems or distractions in the home.

Ironically, one distraction is technology - the family TV, iPod, or home computer. When it comes to such distractions, the UK is certainly world class. But let us take heart. In the last decade these technologies have taken centre stage in our classrooms and enriched the learning experience, thanks to the huge investment made by Labour. As a result, British pupils are well on top of the digital world, which is where our future - economic, social and cultural - lies.

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