My country's rights and wrongs

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Three leading observers of the education scene have been asked why English pupils, especially boys, underperform compared to their overseas peers, reports Jon Slater

TEACHERS must be sick of hearing that British education doesn't cut the mustard.

Politicians of all parties increasingly use international comparisons as a stick with which to beat teachers and evidence to support their latest policy wheezes.

Cross-border comparisons are notoriously difficult, as each country has a different curriculum, culture and set of priorities. And politicians with an eye on headlines inevitably gloss over flaws in the data.

Comparing Standards, published this week by Politeia, a right-of-centre think-tank, aims to inform and take forward the debate.

The basis of the report is an analysis by the National Foundation for Education Research comparing English and Welsh pupils' performance in reading, maths and science with that of seven other developed countries, drawing on the results of two major international surveys. They are the Reading Literacy study carried out by the International Association for the evaluation of Educational Achievement, and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Three leading specialists, Caroline St John-Brooks, editor of The TES, Professor Sig Prais, senior research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, have been invited to give their views on the NFER's conclusions, which feed into the report's proposals.

Positives do come out of the exercise. Our best-educated young people can hold their own against their peers abroad; we perform well in science and are ahead of many countries in data analysis and geometry.

However there are serious weaknesses. Unlike most other countries, we have a long statistical tail of underachievement - especially among boys - and lag behind in reading and arithmetic.

The evidence is stark. The difference between the bottom 5 per cent of readers and the average was far greater in England and Wales than for any of the other countries involved.

The gap in reading-test scores between boys and girls aged nine in this country is more than twice that of the US and Switzerland, three times that of Germany and seven times that of France. And our children are a long way behind in arithmetic. When 12 and 13-year-olds were asked to take 2,369 from 6,000, only 59 per cent of English children answered correctly - compared to an average of 86 per cent in the other countries.

The true picture could be even worse. Sig Prais argues that the tests under-estimate our problems. He believes that low participation among English schools in the research hides the extent of weaknesses in our system.

Whether or not he is right, most commentators agree that there are serious issues that need tackling. But while a consensus is emerging about the problems, there are as many different explanations and solutions as there are shades of political opinion.

Caroline St John-Brooks, who carried out a number of international research projects, stresses the cental role that social class continues to play in schools in this country. She emphasises the positives - our success at teaching, problem-solving and practical activities - as well as the areas that need to improve.

Professor Prais takes a different view. He questions whether the national curriculum is too wide and shallow - that is that it covers too much ground in not enough detail - and whether GCSE syllabuses serve the different abilities of pupils.

Controversially, Chris Woodhead blames the identification of a fifth of pupils in England as having special needs for depressing expectations and raising the number of low-achievers.

However, there is also much common ground. All three experts stress the need to learn from teaching methods in countries which out-perform us.

As Caroline St John-Brooks puts it: "British education is strong when it comes to practical activities and problem-solving. Systematic, structured teaching is not so good - hence the poor results in arithmetic and reading, where regular codes must be cracked."

Professor Prais and Mr Woodhead point to the success of other countries in teaching children to read using phonics - concentrating on the building blocks of language rather than whole words.

The wide range of ability in our classes is also seen as a factor. Sheila Lawlor, director of Politeia, writes: "At primary level variability in attainment may be too great within classes, certainly, as Prais points out by comparison with other countries."

Caroline St John-Brooks suggests that boys may suffer from starting school too early, and from a male culture which does not value schoolwork.

Dr Lawlor suggests that slow developers could be held back a year in primary school, while quick learners could move through school more quickly. And, although she stops short of recommending a return to grammar schools, she calls on the Government to develop more options to suit all abilities at 14.

The Government obviously thinks we can learn from abroad: it has already introduced some of the above ideas in its literacy and numeracy strategies. Don't bet against it adopting more.

Copies available from Politeia at 22 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H OHR, Tel 02070 240 5070. Copies available at special price of pound;5 to TES readers.


"The polarised nature of society means that a relatively large number of young people come from families which are struggling - economically, socially and emotionally - and who are therefore hard to teach."

- Caroline St John-Brooks, editor, TES

"Should early-maturing pupils move from nursery to Year 1 a year younger and slow-developing pupils when a year older, so that they fit in better - in terms of their learning capabilities?"

- Professor Sig Prais,

education consultant

"Crucially (in Pacific Rim countries) all children are expected to master basic skills of literacy and numeracy. This contrasts starkly with the (English) belief that 20 per cent of children have special needs that prevent them from making progress."

- Chris Woodhead, schools chief inspector

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