Crucial test is yet to come

15th December 2000 at 00:00
English pupils' maths results are still at the international average - the national numeracy strategy will be judged on how well they do next time round. Geraldine Hackett reports

MINISTERS are not too disappointed by the news that our 14-year-olds are still around the international average in maths.

As The TES reported last week, tests carried out as part of the Third International Maths and Science Study suggest that there was no improvement in English pupils' international maths ranking between 1995 and 1999.

But the Government believes that the numeracy strategy will enable England to catch up with more mathematically-successful nations. Primary pupils have been doing a daily maths lesson since September 1999, and next year special programmes will be introduced to secondaries.

However, most academics appear to believe that standards should have risen between 1995 and 1999. Margaret Brown, professor of maths education at King's College, London, believes there are no simple solutions. She says:

"We have been below the international average since the 1960s. Some countries hold children back when they haven't achieved the required level and that can affect international ratings. However, we ought to be better than the Netherlands, where children are not held back."

The relative weakness of England's 14-year-olds in geometry was picked up by the last survey and a working group set up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is due to report shortly.

Tony Gardiner, maths professor at Birmingham University, believes England's 14-year-olds should be much higher up the league table. "We are below the United States, which is awful," he says. "The next survey will be the most telling. In four years' time, the children tested will have done the numeracy strategy." The results, he says, are the legacy of an earlier era when schools abandoned the teaching oftables.

Graham Ruddock of the National Foundation for Educational Research, director of the TIMSS project in England, suggests that it might be helpful to look at the impact of setting by ability and the provision of papers for different ability groups. Teachers in England, he says, may not be teaching particular topics to lower-attaining pupils because they will not be entered for the more difficult papers.

The national curriculum maths tests taken by 14-year-olds have a more complex tiering structure than for either science or English and there is a similar layering of papers at GCSE.

In addition, the science survey suggests English children were more likely than average to have been taught all the topics, while in maths coverage of topics was at or below the national average.

According to the QCA, teachers in England are required to provide greater differentiation than in other countries. There is widespread setting by ability by the age of 14 and it continues to GCSE. A number of the maths topics tested in TIMSS would not be taught to 14-year-olds in the bottom set.

The use of calculators also needs to be taken into account when comparing countries. Calculators are not permitted in the TIMSS tests. In England, schools are expected to restrict their use, but calculators are still used more frequently here than in most other countries. However, Japan, one of the highest performers in maths, allows unrestricted use of calculators by children over the age of 10.

The tests were taken by 2,960 children in 128 English schools.

l The Third International Mathematics and Science Study Repeat (TIMSS-R): First National Report by Graham Ruddock, National Foundation for Educational Research. Copies of the report can be obtained from DFEE Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 ODJ Tel 0845 60 222 60. email

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