A new school year, a new class with different backgrounds, likes, dislikes,aspirations. You look at them, talk to them, trying to fathom the imponderable: who are these kids?
Impossible to say so early in the year (if ever), but the Third International Maths and Science Study, conducted in England by the National Foundation for Educational Research earlier this year, gives a pretty good idea, yielding interesting insights into the "average" Year 4 and 5 pupil, if such a creature exists.
Based on tests and questionnaires given to a cross-section of more than 6,000 children between the ages of 8 12 and 10 12, the study offers information not only on their performance compared with children in 25 other countries - terrible in maths, not so bad in science - but on their family structures and their lifestyles, on what they like to do in their spare time and on how they contribute to family life.
The findings of the questionnaire in particular go a long way to dispel myths about contemporary English life. Despite hand-wringing about the demise of the conventional family, more than three-quarters of pupils lived with both their
natural parents and one sibling. Twenty per cent lived with either their mother only or within a reconstituted family including a stepfather. Asked to approximate the number of books in the family home, the largest number of children chose the maximum number of books suggested. Thirty-one per cent said that there were more than 200 books, as opposed to only 7 per cent with up to 10. The significance of these figures is seen in this study as well as previous ones: the more books in the home, the higher the test scores. So much, too, for the demise of the book.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the young British telly and video addict. The mean time spent in front of the box by English children was about 2.2 hours a day, making our children among the most potato-like in the survey. They were outdone only by Latvia, Hungary and Israel.
In contrast, only 1.7 hours a day was spent playing with friends and playing sport and only one hour a day was devoted to reading for pleasure. Although our children were not the least book-loving in the survey, half of the countries in the survey scored higher. But on a positive note, more than 80 per cent of Year 5s said that they read a book for pleasure on most weekdays.
When it comes to more academic pursuits, only a tiny number - 4 per cent - went to maths and science clubs run during the school lunch break. While not particularly interesting in itself, juxtaposed with the revelation that 15 per cent of Year 5s had extra lessons in maths and 6 per cent in science (with slightly higher figures for Year 4s), it makes you wonder why more children with problems in these subjects didn't avail themselves of the clubs.
It will be no surprise to anyone who has children of their own to hear that the mean time (0.9 hours a day) spent by English pupils doing household tasks was low compared with most other countries. It will be a surprise, however, to hear that 80 per cent of Year 5s said they helped out every day. You may be interested to know that Hungarian children, despite being even more glued to the telly than the English, help out for longer than any other nationality.
What does all this tell us? if nothing else, perhaps it is a reminder that our children, most of them anyway, come from stable homes, where with the books are values, a culture, a peer group and computers (though not as many desks or dictionaries as we might like). In other words, they may not be world leaders in maths but basically they're on track and just waiting for a bit of inspiration.
* Third International Maths and Science Study. NFER, #163;15 The Mere, Upton Park, Slough SL12DQ