Teaching maths to 14-year-olds is easier in Scotland than in any other country, according to findings which went unreported in the world's largest testing study published last week. Yet, this did not feed into high rankings for pupil achievement.
Scotland came out on top of 49 countries in maths where pupils allowed teachers to get on with their job. It was based on an "index of teachers' reports on teaching mathematics classes with few or no limitations on instruction due to student factors". England was second in the report from the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which tested 10 and 14-year-olds.
However, the findings were greeted with scepticism. One leading academic described them as "unbelievable".
Teachers in the TIMSS study were asked whether there were any factors which inhibited their ability to teach effectively. These were pupil misbehaviour, children being "uninterested" and, more controversially, the presence of students with different academic abilities, special needs or disparate parental backgrounds.
The resulting index revealed that 71 per cent of Scottish students were in maths classes where S2 teachers reported "few or no limitations" - the top spot; England was second at 64 per cent. Yet Scotland was ranked 14th out of the 49 countries in maths performance. In the index for P5, Scotland was sixth, with 60 per cent of maths lessons unaffected by negative factors getting in the way of teaching; the Netherlands was first with 76 per cent.
The international average for maths was 45 per cent for age 10 and 38 per cent for 14-year-olds.
Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham University who has carried out study visits to classrooms in Russia and the Far East, said: "It's unbelievable. My experience of having talked to people from Asia and Russia does not correspond. If you took a classroom from Britain and one from Japan, I suspect the Japanese pupils would be better-behaved."
Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University, also questioned the results: "This may raise questions about the nature of the schools in which the surveyed teachers taught. Or it may be that teachers in other countries are looking at this question differently."
In science, the results were less startling. But Scotland still took fifth place among 36 countries in the number of science lessons in P5 with "few limitations" on teaching - 76 per cent of students were in such classes against the top performer which was the Netherlands (82 per cent). In S2, Scotland slipped to 14th out of 49 countries - 45 per cent of students were in lessons which went smoothly, compared with those in Armenia which led with 62 per cent.
The international average in science was 53 per cent of 10-year-olds where teachers reported little or no challenging influences on their teaching; and 37 per cent of 14-year-olds.
CLASS SIZE SURPRISE
The TIMSS survey also revealed that class size was not obviously linked to performance. Singapore, which was ranked in the top three for maths and science attainment by 10 and 14-year-olds, had 94 per cent of the younger group in maths classes of 33 or more and the score in those largest classes was 605 (Scotland had 5 per cent, with a score of 506).
Among 14-year-olds in maths, Singapore had 76 per cent of students in classes of 25-40 and they scored 593 (Scotland had 56 per cent, with a score of 517).
In science, 95 per cent of Singaporean 10-year-olds were in classes of 33 or more pupils and their score was 592 (Scotland had just 7 per cent in classes of that size and a score of 520). Among 14-year-olds in Singapore, 79 per cent were in classes of 25-40 students scoring 568 (Scotland had 7 per cent in such classes, with a score of 520).
The report said that, while the high-achieving Asian countries have some of the largest class sizes, "the relationship between class size and achievement is extremely difficult to disentangle".