Tall tales about long tail of failure

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Does Britain have a bigger problem with underachievers than other countries? Or are they just easier to spot? Fran Abrams reports.

SOMETHING fractious is stirring in the normally rarefied world of educational research. There have been strongly-phrased papers; sharp words over coffee and biscuits at an academic gathering. Part of a book has been withdrawn before publication after a libel threat.

Is this just another skirmish on the selection or phonics


No, this spat is all about an issue which most educationists have regarded as indisputable - the "long tail" of underachievement in Britain's schools.

Since this underachievement lies at the heart of the Government's strategy on literacy and numeracy, a debate over whether it even exists may come as something of a shock. Ministers have frequently referred to it in speeches and newspaper articles as a given, beyond dispute. It lies behind programmes such as the Government's literacy hour in primary schools.

But disputed it is. The main protagonist is Margaret Brown, professor of mathematics education at King's College, London. She accosted a respected researcher at a recent conference and asked him to stop talking about the non-existent tail of underachievement. She had to abandon a section of a recent book after being told that one of her opponents - Professor Sig Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research - might sue.

In a recent paper on interpreting comparative international studies she accepts that the

figures seem to show that the lowest-achieving children in

English schools are doing worse than those in other countries such as Switzerland and

Germany. However, she says, this is because in those countries the weakest children are held back a year if they fail to meet certain standards.

The group of low-achieving children in our schools differs

little from that in other countries, she argues. Theirs are harder to spot because a child's test scores may be average, rather than low, when the rest of the class are a year or more younger.

Some of those who seek to perpetuate the "tail of underachievement" are politically-motivated, Professor Brown suggests. And it is on this point that some of her opponents have become particularly heated. They are "often ideologically driven", either by governments trying to justify greater central control or by "governments, groups or individuals arguing for changes in teaching methods or curriculum".

Furthermore, her paper adds, some of the data used has been "selective" or "misleading".

For example, she argues, the major Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) attempted to compare the scores of 13-year-olds in different countries. The tests omitted as many as a quarter of the age group in Germany because they had not reached the appropriate grade.

Similarly, a smaller proportion of the school population had been removed to special or vocational schools in England than elsewhere. In Holland, for example, this meant more than 17 per cent of pupils were excluded from one major study.

Even more dramatically, a footnote to the TIMSS study explained that at 13, only 32 per cent of Thai children attended school. According to Professor Brown, that explained why Thai pupils reached roughly the same levels of achievement as their counterparts in England.

Professor Pras strongly disagrees. "I prefer not to think about Margaret Brown," he sniffs, when asked for his opinion on the subject. Researchers need only to look at skill levels among adults to see that something is wrong with Britain's education system, he adds.

"If you look around you at what has happened to the motor industry in Germany and what has happened to it here, you can see that we simply can't produce the right kind of cars because we don't have properly-qualified people," he says.

Others point to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures on adult literacy and numeracy as evidence that Britain still suffers from underachievement. Its International Adult Literacy Survey found 22 per cent of Britons could not read and understand information from a newspaper article, compared with 19 per cent of German-speaking Swiss and 17 per cent of Canadians. It also found that 23 per cent of Britons could not calculate the potential savings offered by a sale advertisement in a news-

paper, compared with 14 per cent of German-speaking Swiss and 17 per cent of Canadians.

Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, says the international comparisons make stark reading. "Our adults perform consistently worse than those from most other countries," he says. "Maybe it says something about our commitment to education, but also I think we took our eye off the ball at some point and didn't pay enough attention to making sure people left school with those skills."

Wherever the truth lies, those teachers struggling to coax the best from their weaker pupils may find the debate about whether a "tail" of underachievement exists at all laughably academic. But they may also care to bear it in mind when, later this month, new international comparisons under the TIMSS study spawn another rash of newspaper stories comparing Britain's schools unfavourably with Taiwan, Thailand or Toronto.


LOW-achievers are much harder to spot in Swiss classrooms than they are in English ones, according to Joy Barter, an advisory teacher with the London Borough of in Barking and Dagenham, London.

In her former role as a senior teacher in a large infant school, she helped run a pilot scheme for the Improving Primary Mathematics project, run by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

The scheme took her to Switzerland, where weaker children are routinely held back, and she subsequently tried the same method with a child in her own school. She was struck by the confidence of the Swiss children, including those who were older than their classmates.

"They were all participating, there were no children hived off in a corner doing colouring or something. All the children were involved in moving the group forward." she said.

Likewise, a little boy who was held back a year at her own school soon recovered from the shock of being separated from his former classmates. "He was able to keep up and to join in. He did a whole lot of things he had shied away from the previous year," she explained. "He was no longer the poorest in the class."

However, while the highly very structured approach to maths in Switzerland helped weaker pupils, she would not adopt its methods wholesale. "There are other things they don't do quite as well. They don't do creative arts, music, painting or science as well," she said.

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