The truth behind the 'dunce' label

4th February 2000 at 00:00
"ENGLISH children are international maths dunces" is one headline that newspapers never get tired of repeating.

But the truth is that England's maths teachers have little to be ashamed of. The Third International Maths and Science Study showed that England's maths performance is similar to most other European or Anglophone countries - after sampling biases are taken into account.

The bald TIMSS statistics suggested that German 13-year-olds had done slightly better than the English, but they actually did much worse. And while Japan comfortably outscored England in the TIMSS maths tests - which were conducted five years ago - the researchers failed to highlight one of the likely reasons. By the age of 13 an average Japanese child has spent twice as many hours with their maths books as an English one.

Margaret Brown, professor of education at King's College, London University, advances these almost heretical arguments in a new collection of academic papers, Comparing Standards Internationally. She lists reasons why trans-national studies are sometimes unfair to the English.

Grade retention: Many countries require children to repeat a school year if thy fail to reach required standards. This gave Germany an advantage in the TIMSS tests as its pupils were older than average and the lowest-attaining 27 per cent of 13-year-olds had been removed from the sample.

Special schools: In other countries many low-ability pupils are withdrawn from mainstream schooling and placed in special or vocational schools. In Holland, the proportion of children excluded from surveys for this reason has reached 17 per cent.

Curriculum match: The TIMSS maths test for 13-year-olds matched the American curriculum perfectly but only 57 per cent of the test items were appropriate to the syllabus followed by most Year 8 English pupils.

Professor Brown emphasises that, while there are no grounds for complacency, it would be wrong to mimic the "boring" teaching methods of Far Eastern nations that excel in maths tests.

She says: "Teachers, policy-makers and the public need to be highly suspicious of any selective or misleading use of international data for ideological purposes."

Comparing Standards Internationally is available, priced pound;24, from

Symposium Books, PO Box 65,

Wallingford, Oxford OX10 OYG.

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