English maths textbooks are less challenging than French and German rivals. Biddy Passmore reports
SECONDARY pupils in England are offered a poorer diet in mathematics than their French and German counterparts, with low expectations and less challenging textbooks, even for the most able.
A study of the nature and use of maths textbooks for lower-secondary pupils in the three countries found a disturbing lack of ambition among English maths teachers.
The study, by Birgit Pepin of Oxford Brookes University and Linda Haggarty of the Open University, also found that many English pupils had little access to textbooks. In France, all pupils followed the same curriculum and textbooks - which contained many activities allowing them to discover ideas for themselves - and all were expected to read, understand and use mathematical vocabulary.
In England, different textbooks were used for high, intermediate and low-ability pupils and even able pupils were not expected to understand mathematical terms. Teachers limited learning opportunities, arguing that all but the most able pupils needed routine and relatively low-level demands made of them.
"Intermediate students do not need intriguing exercises - they can't do them," said one teacher. Another said: "Children in the lower sets need to be spoon-fed." In English textbooks maths appeared to be "a set of unrelated but utilitarian rules and facts", with "a superficial veneer of including process skills" and "a great deal of repetition of concepts". While French and German ones were densely written, English ones were sparse, often with no words at all.
"If I've got a low-ability group who've got a problem with reading, then I would rarely use the text, I would just use the exercises," said one English teacher. "But with higher-ability pupils I would sometimes say, 'right, read through the next bit' and then I'll go through it with them, putting it in understandable language. But I wouldn't necessarily assume that they would understand all the mathematical language even if they could read it."
Because of financial constraints, lower-secondary pupils in English schools rarely had access to textbooks outside lessons and had to rely on worksheets from teachers. This was especially true of lower-attaining pupils, who were not trusted to look after books. "Such pupils," say Pepin and Haggarty, "might go through five years of compulsory secondary schooling without any support for their learning in mathematics apart from their teacher in lesson time."