England beats France...

12th June 1998 at 01:00
..when it comes to spelling and writing in primary schools. Nicholas Pyke reports.

English primary pupils are better at writing, spelling, and some mathematics than their French counterparts, says new government-backed research - despite the emphasis France places on formal drilling.

English children score well because they are willing to take risks, says the study, which deals a blow to claims that British schools lack rigour.

French children, meanwhile, are hindered by their fear of making mistakes and their deference to authority.

The report, which has been circulated among educationists but not yet formally released, was commissioned by the Government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

It warns against ditching the creative strengths of British education in the rush to imitate foreign competitors.

The study, which compares 400 children, aged 9-11, in each country, does however add to existing concern about British maths. Although English pupils did well in problem-solving exercises, they were poor at division and multiplication.

The conclusion is upbeat: "Perhaps the most important general finding was that English pupils' achievements in these two key areas of maths and language compared favourably in many respects with their French counterparts.

"In particular there were significant national differences in pupils' levels of confidence and their willingness to 'have a go' and to take risks. French pupils seemed to be constrained by their desire to avoid making mistakes and to refer constantly to authority."

English pupils were better at spelling, the use of tenses and story writing. The British emphasis on practice writing, say the authors, may be more effective than the French stress on structure and syntax. French pupils were better at using commas.

In maths, French pupils were good at addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. The English were more prepared to apply a range of strategies - although many of these were inefficient.

The research was carried out by Claire Planel, Marilyn Osborn, Patricia Broadfoot and Brigitte Ward at the University of Bristol and Canterbury Christchurch College. Although the sample was small, the analysis is more detailed than for most international studies.

"It's important not to destroy and lose the strengths of English education while trying to address the weaknesses," Marilyn Osborn said. "Our study does show some very important strengths and a preparedness to take risks which we wouldn't want to lose."

In the end, they say, specific teaching methods are less important than the national culture of education. But they do back the Government's numeracy and literacy strategies.

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