The Government was forced into its first admission that standards in schools are not what they ought to be following another depressing set of figures from the Third International Maths and Science Study. The Education Minister is likely to mount a major drive on standards sooner rather than later.
The survey of nine-year-olds in 26 countries confirms the findings from a companion study on the performance of 13-year-olds published last November.
With an average score of 520 in maths, Scottish pupils performed below the international average and lagged behind 15 other countries, remaining just ahead of England. Achievement in science was better at 536, above the international mean but exceeded by 12 countries.
The Scottish Office admitted that the results reflected a "poor performance", particularly in maths but said that the Scots were among the youngest in the study. A major HMI report to be published in August will advise on the use of calculators, teaching methods and class organisation.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, signalled that the friendly overtures he has made towards schools since he assumed office would not mean any let-up in the drive to improve quality in teaching. The Government is expected to announce a major initiative on standards, partly to fend off any charge that English ministers are setting the pace. This is likely to include fixing "reasonable" targets for each school agreed between the Inspectorate and councils that may then be linked to national education targets.
Mr Wilson conceded: "There is a need to improve the attainment of pupils. "
The detail in the international research makes even more dismal reading, revealing that only 5-6 per cent of nine-year olds were within the top 10 per cent in maths and only 8-9 per cent in science. Their best maths scores were in geometry, and the worst in fractions which will reopen the debate about the reliance on calculators by more than half of Scots children compared with only 1 per cent in Singapore and Japan. Life science produced the best results in science while pupils did least well in environmental questions.
The authors of the study point out that teachers in England and Scotland set less maths homework and do far less whole-class teaching than in the tiger economies of the Pacific Rim. Class sizes in England and Scotland are also higher.
Full results, page 10
Research focus 20-21