The highest-achieving pupils in England can almost match the most able children in Taiwan and Hong Kong in maths tests at the age of 10. But by the time they take their GCSEs they have fallen nearly two years behind their Far Eastern counterparts, a study has found.
The top 10 per cent of English children also appear to be losing ground to the most able pupils in other English-speaking and European countries between the ages of 10 and 16, say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London.
The findings will increase fears that the talents of the brightest English children are not being fully developed. Only last month Sir Michael Wilshaw, England's Chief Inspector of Schools, ordered a "rapid response survey" of how state schools teach the most able children. He predicted that it would result in a "landmark report".
Dr John Jerrim and Dr Alvaro Choi, authors of the IOE research, analysed children's performance in maths tests set by two respected international studies of attainment – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The researchers studied the results of the TIMSS tests taken at age 9/10 (in 2003) and 13/14 (2007) as well as the PISA test for pupils aged 15/16 (2009).
The IOE study, which was partly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and by the Pathways to Adulthood programme, looked particularly at England's scores relative to the "tiger" economies of East Asia. It also examined the performance of a wider group of countries that took part in all three tests -- Scotland, Australia, Italy, USA, Norway, Lithuania, Russia and Slovenia.
The average scores of England's pupils remained broadly similar to those of the other countries between age 10 and 16. However, the researchers found that the highest-achieving English children appeared to make less progress, relative to their peers in all the other countries – East and West – between these ages.
Dr Jerrim said that this finding was worrying. However, he added that it would be wrong to conclude that attention should now focus exclusively on raising standards in secondary schools. Earlier intervention is also required, he says, as pupils in England are already some distance behind those in East Asia – in terms of average maths attainment – by age 10.
He and Dr Choi believe that policymakers should:
- concentrate on reforming mathematics education in the early primary and pre-school years
- invest more in the skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, again with a focus on the primary and pre-school years
- ensure that the secondary curriculum stretches the best young mathematicians – partly though initiatives such as gifted and talented schemes.
The researchers say that greater attention needs to be paid to the most able students as they will be vital to major British industries, such as financial services. However, they caution against dividing more children into ability groups from an early age, arguing that this could be counter-productive.
They also acknowledge that some of the solutions to the problems they have identified may lie outside the school system. "Cultural and social factors might be behind these countries' strong PISA and TIMSS test performance," Jerrim and Choi say. "In East Asian cultures, education has historically been highly valued. This can be seen not only in teachers' high salaries, but also in the heavy investment of families in private tutoring services.
"It's also worth remembering, of course, that factors which can lead to improved academic performance can have negative side-effects, such as increased psychological pressure on students and greater financial demands on parents. Yet, in an increasingly competitive world, such a cultural shift may be necessary to ensure England's future prosperity."
'The mathematics skills of schoolchildren: How does England compare to the high performing East Asian jurisdictions?', by John Jerrim and Alvaro Choi, is the latest in a series of working papers to be published by the Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London. It will be downloadable from http://www.ioe.ac.uk/research/35445.html from 9am on Friday, February 22.