A study comparing primary pupils in France and England highlights the folly of trying to rank countries in educational league tables. David Budge reports
AN IN-DEPTH study of 800 primary schoolchildren in England and France has produced further evidence that British pupils are more competent than their international ranking would suggest.
Researchers at Bristol University have found that English children's performance in maths and language compared favourably with their French counterparts.
"The overall picture which emerged from the assessment results was that English pupils had a more individualistic approach to maths and language, which could be categorised as 'thinking for themselves', over a wide range of topics," Professor Patricia Broadfoot and her colleagues say in a newly-published book on the two-year QUEST project.
This is the second time in recent weeks that education researchers have been able to offer British teachers some cheering news about international comparisons.
Last month Professor Margaret Brown of King's College, London, revealed that England's maths performance is similar to most other European or Anglophone countries, after sampling biases are taken into account (TES, February 4).
But, like Professor Brown, the Bristol team acknowledge that there are few grounds for complacency. Their message is not that English pupils are superior to the French but that the nations' children have different strengths and weaknesses.
The 400 English children in Avon and Kent were stronger on investigation, averages, probability, fractions and visual questions, area and perimeter and visualisation. But the nine to 11-year-olds in Calais and Marseilles were better at computation, geometrical drawing skills, problem-solving and decimals.
"Many English pupils had not grasped the concepts of multiplication or division, though they were stronger than French pupils at handling data and in using and applying maths," the team says.
The English pupils were better at spelling, the use of tenses and creative writing. They were also more able to infer meaning from a text and more willing to do so. The French children were strong on the alphabet and reading comprehension (where questions involved quoting from a text).
"It would seem that, although French pupils may undertake extensive exercises in grammar, this knowledge is not readily transformed when required to be applied in a holistic way in, for example, writing a story," say the researchers, who were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
They add that the significant variations in pupils' strengths and weaknesses in the two countries did not stem from what is often termed "opportunity to learn" - the classroom time devoted to language and maths. About the same amount of time was given to language in the two countries and the French spent marginally more time on maths.
There were, however, important differences in emphases within the countries' national curricula.
"The different national patterns of pupil performance also reflected their degree of familiarity with a particular style of test item ... this raises questions concerning how meaningful international league tables of national comparisons are," the researchers comment.
They believe that some of the national differences they detected could reflect the distinctive teaching tyles in the two countries. The French teachers' principal goal is that pupils should master the material being taught, whereas the English teachers' emphasis has traditionally been on encouraging children to think for themselves, and on understanding and knowledge through problem-solving.
But the different pedagogical approaches are, in turn, influenced by national attitudes towards education.
In the French education system, there is a commitment to equality, which is deeply rooted in the culture.
"The French emphasis on effort, rather than ability, as the explanation of differences in performance helps to prevent pupils being discouraged at an early stage in their school career.
"In England, different historical experiences have contributed to the emergence of a culture which is characterised by differentiation and particularism - a culture in which individuality is the central principle."
One negative consequence of the English culture is that pupils are more likely to believe they are "thick" if they fail to make progress.
"The English tradition of teaching 'the person' rather than simply 'the pupil' is a very high-risk strategy, given its potential to make pupils vulnerable to a sense of failure," the QUEST team say.
"This tradition requires the most sensitive response by teachers to the hearts as well as the minds of their pupils.
"Nevertheless, in a world of lifelong learning, it is arguably only by just such an engaging of pupils' emotions as well as their minds that the necessary empowerment of learners will be achieved."
"Promoting Quality in Learning: Does England have the Answer?" by
Patricia Broadfoot, Marilyn Osborn, Claire Planel, University of Bristol, and Keith Sharpe, University of Liverpool, is published by Cassell, price pound;17.99
HOW THE CHILDREN SEE IT
The QUEST researchers also interviewed 10 primary children in each country who had attended school in both England and France as part of a six-month exchange scheme.
What the English liked best about French schools
Not having to wear a uniform
Having Wednesdays off (French primary schools are closed on Wednesdays, theoretically so that children can have religious
instruction out of school)
The lack of bullying
And what they liked least
The length of the school day
The amount of homework and its content
Recitation and having to learn work by heart
Restrictions on movement around the class ("You sit in rows, you don't talk to each other ever and it's very strict, very formal")
Teachers who sometimes manhandled or humiliated children
What the French liked best about English schools
Sport and gymnastics
The easiness of some lessons such as maths (the research was carried out before the introduction of literacy and numeracy hours)
The shorter school day
And what they liked least
The lack of direction on homework ("It's a bit stupid because afterwards the teacher got angry because they didn't learn the work. She said 'but you know that', then she didn't follow it up with other exercises")
The size of the classes and the noise ("The teacher was very nice. She corrected your work ... (but) she did not watch the other children ... Some were calling out or getting up, it was really unpleasant trying to work")