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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  • Comment number 596.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    @'579. joeordinary who wrote 'Either stop private education now and watch as everyone - including the wealthy and politically influential - demand the very best for all children. Or stop moaning and sell out like 544.Anonymous Please.'

    I did not sell out, I chose to save my child from bullies. I worked hard to change things as a member of the school's parent council, but we were ignored.

  • rate this

    Comment number 594.

    Compulsary education is for the provision of the future workforce. It is all down to economics. Targets are designed to get the best results for the majority at least cost. Private education's aim is to make a profit for the group owning the schools. Educating pupils to the full extent of their capability is not on any agenda other than that of some parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    Our son is taking his GCSE maths before he leaves junior school. The system dumbs down by definition at ever stage as teachers are forced to report only a maximum score. The system doesn't have guidelines resources or facilities for the exceptionally G & T The state system is limited going forward and its true we are forced to consider grammer and private options in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    All in All

    A lovely sentiment in an ideal world but who is going to want to clean toilets for 'love and fulfilment'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    If you Target Mediocrity

    You get?


  • rate this

    Comment number 590.

    4 Minutes ago

    Do not read garbage on this HYS. Any informed or knowledgeable.'

    Teachers need capital letters, exclamation marks and instructions on what not to read? The crisis in education is much worse than I thought.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    NO to streaming but YES to deveolping the brightest. Surely a contradiction? How can the brightest be developed without some form of streaming?

    To me, this is the essence of the problem. By all means put effort and resources into supporting those who are, dare I say, not so bright but by starving the potential of the high-fliers we do an injustice to all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    Schools aren't letting down children the continual political interference and fixation with league tables is letting down children.
    The main problem, as always, with political footballs is those responsible for the mess never have to suffer the consequences of their actions. Politicians always deny responsibility when they get it wrong and never suffer anyway

  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    Tell budding math&sci kids that they will have the guarantee of a chance to make a positive contribution to humanity, a wealth of resources available to pursue their interests, and no need to worry about food and shelter - but all they have to do is apply their talent.

    Then they have a reason to work.

    Tell them "study hard and you might earn £££ in the City!" and most will give up. And have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    There is a myth that streaming is banned. Wrong. I work in a primary school, we stream for maths and get very good results from all our children. We are constantly challenged to raise the most able to level 6 by the age of 11 and to get our poorest to achieve the national expected (level 4). We usually have around a 90% level 4 and above, 50% level 5 and 10% level 6. Good schools do a good job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    Too much focus on getting those students who fall just below a C up and higher achievers are just getting left behind. Doesn't help that schools get cash for supporting the lower end (which isn't wrong by the way!) but there has to be balance. The country relies on its best people to lead us in all sorts of areas. if we do not support them we will be left even furher behind in the global markets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    517.Big John the Red

    "Why has the UK never produced a Gates or a Jobs?"

    How about Alan Turing or Sir Clive Sinclair ? Maybe not so good at business as your choices - but better at pure science...

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    Spouse and I were taught maths to A Level, passed challenging exams. Sons weren't taught properly ("maths investigation" were constant disasters and replaced teaching). One dropped out of maths and science completely the other fought his way to an engineering degree despite his maths teachers. Time to get maths back on track, but we'll have to train up new teachers, the current ones are useless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    The problem with UK education is the absence of evidence-based policy. Think about it: If you take medicine, it will have been through randomized multi-centre trials to prove its effectiveness. Educational practices are rarely tested this way, leading to the adoption of fads. Yet education affects a person longer than medicine, and even increases life span. We have NICE, what about a NIEE?

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    One issue is that some kids are just genuinely demotivated and don't see the relevance of schooling. They have no inspiration to learn and often don't see the relevance and examples such fractions are useful to cut a cake. If real life examples were used or different career options were shown at an early age along with what you need to get there - the engagement levels would probably rise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 580.

    At least we used to have a plan to deal with all of this. Just make the exams easier every year and it doesn't highlight the fact that the education system is trying to drag everyone down to the lowest level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 579.

    Either stop private education now and watch as everyone - including the wealthy and politically influential - demand the very best for all children.

    Or stop moaning and sell out like 544.Anonymous Please.

    Nothing will change while private schools provide a haven of disciplined learning for the 7% while the rest fight over the scraps as politicians try to buy votes via education policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    Many sneer at 'equality', taking advantage of (or inventing) straw-man policies of naive 'equalisation' ('opportunity' or 'outcome')

    Imagine (take the risk) in a world 'believing' income-equality critical for on-going individual liberty & overall democratic purpose

    You would be able to trust: bankers, press, politicians, teachers, ALL, not 'in it for money or security', but for love & fulfilment

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    55"The UK school system is frustrating as brighter kids are not rewarded or encouraged to do better. One of my kids came home with a C grade paper, I said it was rubbish as I know she is capable of A* level & had done better before."


    Parenting, everybody. Big round of applause for Parenting.


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