A comparative study of pupil performance in more than 40 countries has confirmed that English children really are poor at maths - but its science findings are surprisingly upbeat. David Budge reports. The publication of the long-awaited Third International Maths and Science Study this week confirmed that the rumour-mongers' dire predictions were almost wholly correct.
English 13-year-olds are poorer at maths than children in many other European countries, and they are no longer within hailing distance of youngsters in Pacific Rim nations.
As leaked reports have been suggesting since the summer, the TIMSS tests carried out in March l995 have revealed that England's Year 9 pupils' scores were significantly lower than those recorded in about half of the 40 countries surveyed.
The study, which is arguably the most thorough that has ever been undertaken, also shows that English children are even further behind in maths in comparison with many other developed nations than previous surveys have suggested.
The Second International Maths Study was, however, also dispiriting from an English perspective. That 1982-83 study, which involved 20 countries, found that England's 13-year-olds were nearly two years behind their Japanese peers and about a year behind children in the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
The average score for English Year 8 children in the new study was only 47 per cent - 2 per cent less than the international average and 26 per cent less than the highest-performing country, Singapore.
England's Year 9 pupils scored 53 per cent, which was also 2 per cent below the international average and 26 per cent behind the Singapore total. Predictably, the English children were also trounced by the young mathematicians of Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.
But, equally worryingly, England was also way behind Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden (Year 9 only) and Switzerland. Several Eastern European countries, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia, also did substantially better in the tests, as did Australia, Canada and Ireland, which have been ranked alongside England in the past.
Children in the United States now seem to be on a par with the English whereas previous studies have shown them to be lagging behind.
The study reveals that only 7 per cent of English Year 9 pupils are ranked within the top l0 per cent internationally. Almost a third (32 per cent) of Japanese children and a phenomenal 45 per cent of the Singapore youngsters reach this standard.
TIMSS, like other studies, also suggests that England has a relatively large number of low achievers - 23 per cent of pupils coming within the bottom quartile of the international ability range.
By contrast, only 1 per cent of Singapore children and 5 per cent of the Japanese fell into this category.
The English pupils were below the international average in five of the six mathematical areas tested: fractions and number sense, geometry, algebra, measurement, and proportionality.
Only 42 per cent of Year 9 English pupils provided the correct answer to the question: "A class has 28 students. The ratio of girls to boys is 4:3. How many girls are in the class?" And just under a half of them could cope with another relatively simple question: "A person's heart is beating 72 times a minute. At this rate, about how many times does it beat in an hour?" One of the few consolations was that English pupils did relatively well in data representation, analysis and probability. They also matched or bettered their Scandinavian contemporaries - with the exception of the older Swedish children - and their scores were similar to the Germans' even though they were eight months older than the English children on average.