England V Rest of World: Late Score

By Keys, Wendy | New Statesman (1996), November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

England V Rest of World: Late Score


Keys, Wendy, New Statesman (1996)


Press reports would have you believe that our children are international dunces. Wendy Keys finds that the truth is far more complex

Are our children really bad at mathematics? Will we have enough scientists and technologists in the future? Is our international competitiveness at risk from sub-standard schooling?

People in England could be forgiven for believing that our schools achieve lower standards in mathematics than those in almost any other country in the developed world. When the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study survey of 13 year olds were first published in 1996, the Times (3 July 1996) reported that "English pupils plummet in international maths league". Several months later, when the results of the TIMSS survey of nine year olds came out, the Express (11 June 1997) reported: "We're the dunces. English pupils are way behind in maths." Most other papers carried similar headlines.

Yet pupils in England performed very well on the science tests. Out of 4l countries tested, only the 13 year olds in Singapore, the Czech Republic, Japan and Korea got significantly higher mean scores than the English; those in Sweden, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong and France all did significantly worse; those in Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia were roughly on a par. In maths, though the English got significantly lower scores than 20 other countries, they were still on a par with children in Germany, the US, Norway and Denmark. The results for nine year olds were similar.

So there is a case for more headlines along the lines of "Primary school science pupils third [sic] in the world" (Daily Telegraph, 7 June 1997). As Jim Campbell of Warwick University commented: "Primary science is an unsung success story brought about by teacher enthusiasm and investigative methods, not by whole-class teaching."

This is not to deny that our pupils are better at some things than at others. In tests of practical mathematics and science, which were taken by pupils in 19 of the countries, 13 year olds in England achieved the second highest mean score, surpassed only by pupils in Singapore. And in written maths tests, English 13 year olds were above the international average for data representation and analysis. On the other hand, they were well below the international average for fractions and number sense and algebra. Look at the examples on page 32, compare the English scores with the international ones and ask yourself which skills will be most important to the ordinary citizen in the 21st century. The danger is that, if we go "back to the basics" of number, as so many people advocate, we do so at the expense of the areas in which our children now do well.

But, it is argued, the real problem is our relatively poor performance in maths because this stops pupils going forward to study the sciences at A-level and beyond. Mathematics educators, particularly those in universities, have frequently expressed concerns about the low standard of maths among entrants to degree courses in the sciences, technology and engineering. The international tests failed to show up this problem because so few of the science items included any mathematics.

These are legitimate concerns. But we still have to ask questions about their significance. Is there a link between educational performance and economic success? Peter Robinson, of the Institute for Public Policy Research, argues that the link is by no means certain. He says, for example, that "in the international tests, students in the United States tend to come out with scores that are often close to those of the English students, which raises a puzzle because the United States remains the world's most successful major industrial nation with the highest level of per capita GNP". Furthermore, Robinson has demonstrated that countries' mathematics and science attainment on the tests "were not correlated in any meaningful way with economic performance as measured by the level of or growth rate in per capita GNP". …

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