Not drowning by numbers;Opinion

20th March 1998 at 00:00
Skulduggery, duplicity, dastardly double-dealing. Call it what you will - it seems that politicians across the world just can't help playing dirty when it comes to reporting the findings of international maths and science studies.

Professor Margaret Brown's Research Focus article (page 17) offers important insights into how the results of the Third International Maths and Science Study have been used and abused. Clearly every box of TIMSS statistics should have come stamped with the words "Handle with care". But both the last Conservative government and its media friends covered up the warning with their own "Back to basics" label.

The same phenomenon has also been witnessed in the United States, where the media stand accused of failing to understand even elementary statistical concepts and being obsessed with printing stories that cast American schools in a bad light - the "if it bleeds it leads" syndrome.

As in the US, British politicians and the media make a fuss about unflattering international league positions, either because they hanker after chalk-and-talk schooling or because they believe that a relative decline in maths and science scores will damage our national productivity. That belief may be correct, but it is only an intuition, as economists such as Dr Peter Robinson of the Institute of Public Policy and Research point out.

He has teasingly asked how it is that the United States remains the world's most successful industrial nation, when its pupils are no better at maths than the English. He also contends that there is no evidence that the impressive (until recently) growth rates of Asian countries are a product of past superior attainment in maths.

So what are we to make of this? Should we disregard maths attainment levels? Of course not. We have to continue trying to make our children more numerate and must consider how the maths curriculum could be improved. But governments should stop giving the impression that high rates of literacy and numeracy will automatically result in economic progress. The Czechs, Slovaks and Bulgarians, who are always highly placed in international maths rankings, tend to laugh bitterly at such a suggestion.

Equally, although international comparisons are often unreliable and frequently misconstrued that does not mean we should withdraw from such studies or ignore the messages they give us. Tony Blair may repeatedly refer to Britain's 35th-place ranking in the world's education league, but there is, paradoxically, a danger that we could soon become self-satisfied again. The Asian countries' economic troubles have emboldened those who say we have nothing to learn from teaching methods used in the Far East.

There is no doubt, in spite of our habitual breast-beating, that other countries can learn from the British system. Michael Barber, head of the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit, recently asserted that the UK's ability to manage educational change is currently the "envy of the world". And our more progressive fringes have plenty to teach as well. As Josephine Gardiner reports (page 10), Pacific Rim countries are fascinated by AS Neill's Summerhill school and its uncompromisingly child-centred approach to education. At the same time, other reports in this week's TES - on the failure of Australia's "superteacher" programme (page 17) and the rejection of single-sex schooling in the US (page 25) - suggest that we too can benefit from compare-and-contrast exercises.

As Wells Foshay, a comparative education researcher, said more than 35 years ago: "If custom and law define what is educationally allowable within a nation, the educational systems beyond one's national boundaries suggest what is educationally possible."

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