England's schools 'letting future maths stars down'

GCSE exam England was out-performed by most countries at higher level maths

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England is neglecting its brightest children, leaving them lagging far behind their peers overseas in top level maths scores, a report says.

The Sutton Trust study shows teenagers in England are half as likely as those in the average developed nation to reach higher levels in maths.

Brighter pupils are more likely to go to private or grammar schools rather than other state schools, it adds.

The government said it wanted to "restore academic rigour" to schools.

Researchers at the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University examined the proportions of pupils achieving the highest levels in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests.

'Deeply troubling'

The PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) compare the performance of pupils in different countries in subjects such as reading and maths. The latest results date back to 2009.

The report found that just 1.7% of England's 15-year-olds reached the highest level, Level 6, in maths, compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.

In Switzerland and Korea, 7.8% of pupils reached this level.

Overall, England ranked 26th out of 34 OECD countries for the proportion of pupils reaching the top level in maths, behind other nations like Slovenia (3.9%), the Slovak Republic (3.6%) France (3.3%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%), which were among those scoring around the OECD average.

Start Quote

These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential - which is unfair and a tragedy ”

End Quote Sir Peter Lampl Sutton Trust

The report adds that the situation looks worse for England when a wider global comparison is used.

Singapore, which is not part of the OECD table analysed, saw 15.6% of its students score the top level, while in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which were also not part of the OECD table, 10.8% and 26.6% respectively got the top level.

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: "This is a deeply troubling picture for any us who care about our brightest pupils from non-privileged backgrounds."

The study also suggests that comparing the maths results of 18-year-olds would be even more stark because 90% of English pupils drop the subject after GCSE.

Whereas in many other countries, maths is compulsory up to the age of 18.

The report argues that England is falling down international tables because of successive failures to help the most able pupils.

It calls for bright children to be identified at the end of primary school, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on.

'Profound concerns'

It says there should also be tougher questions in exams to allow bright youngsters to stretch themselves and show their abilities.

Sir Peter said: "These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically-able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds.

"Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential - which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole."

Report author Prof Alan Smithers said recent education policy for the brightest had been a mess.

"The government should signal to schools the importance of educating the brightest through how it holds the schools to account.

"At present the accountability measures are pitched at the weakest and middling performers," he added.

Education Secretary Michael Gove added: "We already knew that under Labour we plummeted down the international league tables in maths.

"Now we see further evidence that they betrayed bright children from poor backgrounds and - worst of all - that their policies drove talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds away from the subjects that employers and universities value most."

Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: "Results for all pupils, including the brightest, improved under Labour.

"While there are always improvements that could be made, gifted and talented pupils were stretched through a National Academy, targeted scholarships and a new A* grade at A-level.

"While we want to see bright pupils stretched, this can't be at the expense of leaving some behind. Michael Gove's plans will create a two tier exam system, which will do nothing to help all pupils make the most of their potential."

Nasuwt teaching union head Chris Keates said the tests used to draw the comparisons, and the way children prepare for them, differed between countries.

"Their conclusions raise more questions than they answer. They are not comparing like with like.

"The education systems are different. The pupils taking the tests are selected differently. Some countries do nothing but prepare for the tests for months. Some, like Shanghai may not enter a pupil sample generally reflective of the student population and use crammer sessions to prepare."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I think exams should be designed so that the average person would only get 50% of the marks. This would allow plenty of room for the bright kids to shine and show what they can do.

    Everyone getting 90%+ might make everybody feel good, but it's a pretty useless indicator of talent

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    More divisive nonsense from the Tories. Let’s hope the Lib-Dems have the bottle to say “Thanks. but no thanks, Mr Gove”

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    GCSE's, A/S Levels and A-Levels are all far too easy nowadays!

    In Northern Ireland, we were made to sit the NI exams (5yrs ago) which are more difficult than the English equivalents.... it should be the same level of difficulty all over the UK, as some NI schools opted for the easier English exams just to boost their pupils performances! Doesn't surprise me people opt for grammar schools...I did!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    @59 the ace face
    People with wealth sent (and still send) their kids to private schools. Grammar schools were mostly non fee paying, and were the traditional route whereby a bright kid of whatever background could be educated with other bright kids. It meant a working class child could aim for the top, more difficult under today's system. Labour's Wilson and Callaghan were grammar school boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    @44 "Academic excellence is overrated."

    Go tell that to the generations of scientists and engineers whose work has gone into allowing you to make that comment on web page.

    If you're going to stand on the shoulders of giants, at least have the decency to wipe your feet first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I hear many stories (all first hand) of some of the things that go on in our local schools - infant, primary and secondary.
    For any educated during the 1950s/60s, these tales would make what little is left of our hair curl.
    A well educated work force is the foundation & long term future of any country. The pc correct tick box system of our (non)education system is creating a nation of failures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    League tables and assessment are stifling education with focus on 5 A*-C. The focus should be on value-added not raw scores, with the brightest allowed to extend themselves with differentiated assessment and teaching. The Ofsted fixation with test results is creating paralysis and lowest common denominator teaching and learning. Wider criterion, including extending the gifted, are needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    That is obviously what successive governments, specially Labour ones, have sought to happen. This is why so many leave school without basic qualifications. The idea of no separation does not help the poorest, but is intended to 'dumb' down the brightest. For forty years our brightest kids have been held back by political dogma. Also, it has been the excuse for immigration.


  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Isn't the problem here that teachers resent kids being brighter than they are? Nobody likes a smart-ass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The ridiculous mountains of cash that were splurged by the last government on new school buildings, when existing ones, sometimes very distinguished-looking structures, barely needed much more than a lick of paint, and the accompanying fallacy that this policy of "bulldoze and rebuild" would raise academic and behavioural standards, shows that the brightest pupils have not ended up in politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    In a ceaseless drive to social equality, some forget that the success of GB PLC will be built on maximising the achievements of the most able. It is nothing to do with divisiveness or scrapheaps, it is about creating a society which can compete in a global marketplace. There's a place for social engineering but it takes money and that money comes from exporting superior products and services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    For our thrusting politicians, the paradox:

    The bigger the discrepancy between childhood stories and adult reality, the lesser the take of morality among the already disadvantaged, the greater the shock of others at social hypocrisy, and the higher the 'disappearance-rates' amongst those in all fields most persuaded for rigour and public service

    So, the worship of Mammon brings decline and fall

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    My teachers were employed to focus on lower-level students to meet targets. I ended up having to teach myself - ultimately, half of my 4 A-levels were self-study. I nearly wasn't allowed to, on the basis that allowing me to take an extra A-level would be 'unfair on others'. I now teach high-level youngsters in the hopes that they will have a better chance to reach their full potential than I did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    dr_rich - a common thread amongst teachers at certain selective schools we are currently thinking about for my daughter is that children come to the 11+ tests so highly spoon fed with extra tutioning, that in the secondary school, these children have no idea of getting the most out of secondary learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    59. The Ace Face
    This smells like another push for the return of grammar schools, in other words, a two-tier system where people with wealth gain to benefit the most and everyone else is written off.

    What has wealth got to do with getting into grammar schools? Every kid takes the same test (11+) and those that pass go to grammar school, you cant buy your way in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    In many posh schools culture of bullying pulls down pupils, & this is often done by better off. Their own parents having fought their way by fair means of foul to get hold of a fist full of money.

    Putting down others is considered normal, getting advantage by fair or foul. They have got it, that fist full of money but you have not. Thereby they win and you lose

    Ask any well off Tory boy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    A very concerning picture that echoes the general perception that pupils are taught to pass exams and 'A' grades aren't what they used to be.

    That said, Gove should stop blaming Labour for everything and get on with fixing the problem. His comments are puerile and pointless.

    The country needs fixing on so many levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    This smells like another push for the return of grammar schools, in other words, a two-tier system where people with wealth gain to benefit the most and everyone else is written off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I went to a grammar school and class size was 30+. Quality teachers and teaching meant that many went on to tertiary education: the system worked. In 1965, I wrote to the Hackney Gazette predicting that the impending change to comprehensive would destroy the school, losing fine teachers and not attracting best students. All predictions were correct and Hackney Downs School was forcibly closed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    The comprehensive system means that everyone has to proceed at the speed of the slowest pupil. league tables which rank schools on the number of pupils getting a-c grades at GCSE mean teachers concentrate most of their efforts on those who would otherwise struggle to get a C and leave the brighter kids unstretched, so a few get Bs and Cs who would otherwise have got straight As.


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