Measuring the platypus effect
Some science specialists are concerned that there has been no improvement since 1995. The gains made at primary level do not seem to have been built on by secondary schools. However, there are also grounds for celebration. English teenagers appear to enjoy their science lessons more than their counterparts in countries such as Japan.
Jonathan Osborne, senior lecturer in science education at King's College, London, said: "If you look at the data on attitudes to science, it is clear that the way they teach science in Japan may be turning children off the subject. Their students are among the least positive about science of the 38 countries that took part."
"We must be doing a reasonable job. TIMSS confirms there is a sensible balance across the different areas of science and other countries don't appear to approach the subject as systematically as we do."
The study shows England is in the same league as Singapore, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and Canada. Performance is significantly higher than in the United States, New Zealand and Italy.
However, our gender gap is wider than in other countries. In England, 31 per cent of boys were placed in the top quarter of the national attainment range, compared with only 19 per cent of girls. As in most other countries, English boys outperform girls in physics and chemistry, but not in life science and the nature of science. The only countries where girls draw slightly ahead of boys are the Philippines and Jordan.
In England, the performance gap is reflected in attitudes. More boys were found to hav positive attitudes to science than girls.
Overall, English pupils perform above the international average in the six content areas: earth science; life science; physics; chemistry; environmental and resource issues; scientific enquiry and the nature of science. The highest scores are in scientific enquiry and the nature of science.
The distinctive feature of the science curriculum in England is the major emphasis on applying scientific concepts to solve problems and develop explanations, and to communicating scientific procedures and explanations in written and oral form. Fewer than half the participating countries report similiar priorities.
In contrast to maths, most of the TIMSS science topics would have been familiar to all, or almost all, pupils in England. This is partly because there is less setting in science and common papers are set for different ability groups. A lower proportion of English 14-year-olds were familar with all the maths topics than in other countries.
The style of teaching may also differ from other countries. Teachers in England reported spending less time on lecture-style presentation, but more on both teacher-guided pupil practice and experiments conducted by pupils.
However, those concerned that cultural differences can bestow advantage on children in particular countries can take heart from the question on the duck-billed platypus. Of the 14-year-olds asked to denote which characteristic shows that the duck-billed platypus is a mammal, pupils in the animal's native Australia were in the group least likely to get the right answer. (Answer: it feeds its young milk).
l The countries that did not take part include France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.