Maths scores still spoil the picture

8th December 2000 at 00:00
International comparisons show English pupils are middle-ranking mathematicians but among the best in the world in science. Geraldine Hackett reports.

THE Government's standards drive has so far failed to narrow the gap in maths between 14-year-olds in Britain and their counterparts in countries such as Singapore, Hungary, Canada and Russia, judging by a 41-country study.

The latest survey of maths and science standards shows that England remains around the international average for maths, but one of the best in the world for science.

Maths skills among English 14-year-olds tested in 1999 have barely changed since the last survey in 1995. However, these pupils had not benefited from the Government's numeracy strategy, introduced nationally in September 1999. The study shows that boys continue to outperform girls. Overall results are similar to those achieved in the United States, Malaysia, New Zealand and Bulgaria.

However, England's 14-year-olds are more positive about maths than those in most other countries.

Pupils in England are particularly weak at geometry, but do score above the international average for measurement. They hit the average for number, data handling and algebra.

In science, standards among 14-year-olds are on a par with Japan, Singapore, the Netherlands, Hungary, Australia and Canada. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study ranks England ninth in science and 25 out of 41 in maths.

Schools minister Estelle Morris said ministers had already acted to raise standards in secondary schools with plans to introduce literacy and numeracy strategies.

She said: "The fact is that until 1998 too many of our primary schools did not teach maths well and teachers were not comfortable with the teaching of maths.

I am confident that the improvements we are making at primary level will have a long-term benefit and will be measurable among 14-year-olds in due course."

Since the election in 1997 the Government has not targeted science in primary schools.

The study shows that UK schools carry out more experiments in their science studies than the international average.

Academics suggest performance in science is high because of the consensus among teachers about the way it should be taught and the influence of the Assocation for Science Education. <> Further analysis of the TIMSS findings will appear in the Briefing section of next week's TES


THE highest maths scores were all in Pacific Rim countries, Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan. The analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests policy-makers should look at the impact of setting by ability in schools and the practice of providing papers tiered according to difficulty.

A higher proportion of 14-year-olds - 88 per cent - reported that they frequently worked by themselves on textbooks and worksheets. They also reported starting their homework in class less frequently than the national average.

Pupils used the board in English lessons far less frequently than in other countries.

The survey shows England has one of the highest rates of calculator use.

However, high-performing Singapore and the Netherlands had similar proportions of calculator use.

Example of a question the top 10 per cent are likely to get right internationally:


THE study highlights the success of English secondary schools in producing 14 year-olds who can hold their own in science against such as high performers as Singapore, Hungary and Australia.

However, boys do better than girls in most areas, notably physics and chemistry, and the gender difference in England is wider than elsewhere. The difference in performance is less on questions related to scientific inquiry and the nature of science. Boys also have more positive attitudes to the subject.

England differs from other countries in providing greater opportunities for students to do practical work and experiments. The survey shows 77 per cent of 14-year-olds spend between two and three-and-half hours a week on science and another 11 per cent spend up to five hours.

Questions the brightest 10 per cent are likely to get right: What is predicted to be the result of global warming?

A: Rising ocean level B: More severe earthquakes C: Larger volcanic eruptions D: Thinning ozone layer Answer:A Ethan hammered a nail into the trunk of a young tree. Explain why the nail was still at the same height from the ground 20 years later, even though the tree had grown to a height of 22 metres.

Answer: A tree grows from its top up. It doesn't keep coming out of the ground.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today