Educational and cultural differences between Scotland and Korea are so profound that comparisons of performance in maths are virtually meaningless, a Korean teacher who recently studied at Edinburgh University says. Writing in the current edition of the Scottish Mathematical Council journal, Hyun Jeong Seong concludes simply: "Korean pupils score better because they work harder."
The results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which have been used to beat Scottish schools over the head, showed first-year Scottish secondary pupils came 26th out of 45 countries on a range of maths tasks while second-year pupils ranked 28th. Their Korean counterparts, a year older, came second at both stages.
Ms Seong, along with colleagues Ruth Forrester and John Searl from Edinburgh University's centre for mathematical education, points out that the nature of syllabi and examinations could make a crucial difference. Korean pupils face frequent questions of the same type, they say.
The Edinburgh analysis also points to shortcomings in the scale the TIMSS study used to calculate scores because it exaggerates differences in performance. Scottish first-year pupils scored an average mean score of 463 and 498 in second year, compared with Korean scores of 577 and 607 (the respective international averages being 484 and 513).
"These scores have been widely quoted," the report notes, "but whether the comparisons drawn have any usefulness, given the above concerns, is debatable."
But it is Ms Seong's account of differences between the two systems which will cast most doubt on the validity of international comparisons. Korean schooling is highly centralised with few local variations, teachers usually teach only one year group, the same lesson is used up to five times, set textbooks are used and whole-class teaching is the norm not the individualised learning common in Scotland.
Minimum class time spent on maths in first and second year in Scotland is 90 hours a year. It is 120 hours in Korea. The Scottish average for maths homework set by the teacher is 25 minutes a week, compared with 73 minutes in Korea.
Virtually all Korean pupils study with a private tutor or at a cram school, spending more than four hours a week "overtime" against an estimated 70 minutes in Scotland.
Success in maths is highly prized by Koreans as a passport to a university place and therefore a good job. A recent survey showed only 38 per cent of pupils agreed they did well in maths compared with 88 per cent of S2 Scottish pupils. The result is "excess stress".
The Edinburgh report states: "Pupils are tested very frequently (seven big exams as well as teachers' tests each semester). Much emphasis is put on pupils' ranking . . . in the whole country as well as in their own school."