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 676.

    Speaking as someone who went to a Grammar school; I can say they won't solve all your problems if your child is under-performing at maths. I left school at 16 without GCE Maths, having been in the bottom set all the way through. In my final year I was put into a special CSE set - setup and run by Keith Strachan - and I achieved a Grade 1 CSE in Maths from nothing over the space of about 5 months!

  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    "You'll usually find that the brightest kids achieving the best intellectually, become ostricised and usually end up with poor social skills"

    True. If only there was a way of enabling them to study together in a school where they would challenge one another and grow, rather than force them to endure years of violent abuse from people who will probably want open heart surgery from them one day?

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.


    Perhaps you'll laugh, from AfA: "all very well in theory"

    Not easy, for parents, governors, politicians, teachers to 'come together' & change character or yank standards, in time for your child

    Schools SHOULD nurture all, facing not creating 'realities' of aptitude,
    striving: 'access-level' for all, interest-fostering for most, full-ahead for committed

    WILL, £= @636-662

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    This is due to a number of reasons. we have to remember that many years ago we lead the world in education (plus many other areas)
    Grammer schools were good for the brightest pupils...standard of teaching was far better...teachers made a career of teaching ...not just a job. political interferrence from politicians who don't have a clue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    670. brooklynbrawler
    You'll usually find that the brightest kids achieving the best intellectually, become ostricised and usually end up with poor social skills.

    What utter tosh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    Or just reintroduce the Grammar School, Technical College and Secondary Modern to keep the idiots and morons away from the bright kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    It's not the schools' fault, it's a cultural and social thing among kids and their peers.
    When kids reach a particular age, it becomes increasingly difficult to balance academic achievement with social acceptance.
    You'll usually find that the brightest kids achieving the best intellectually, become ostricised and usually end up with poor social skills. Few can manage both with current attitudes

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    "Sidney Monroe
    Don't allow your hatred of one political party to motivate your posting behaviour on HYS"

    Not something you've ever done, eh Sidney?

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    Most posts = "I went to school years ago so listen to my opinion."
    Myth 1 - 'Schools don't stream by ability' - the majority do.
    Myth 2 - 'A post-war model of segregation at 11+ would solve things' - didn't then, won't now.
    Myth 3 - 'Teachers can influence the curriculum, exams or even teaching methods' - not for a generation.
    We need informed policy - many anectodes do not equal evidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    If the Government were to remove many of the burdens on teachers imposed by the previous Government and reformed OFSTED so that it was competent and fit for purpose, teachers would have more time to plan exciting and stimulating lessons instead of endlessly form filling or ticking boxes to satisfy inspectors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    Re 28 The walrus999 One the best and most accurate assessment of where the rot started ! Primarily socialist dogma of dragging everyone and everything down to the lowest common denominator, by reality insulated career politicians many who have never had to survive in the real world. Strange that 40years ago UK was a centre of academic excellence. TEACHERS ran those schools not PC.box tickers!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    Never mind about letting our brightest down, what about letting our LEAST able Maths students down? All we seem to want to do is make exams easier every year so that there is the illlusion of improvement! Here's a genuine GSCE Maths question "Write down the number 5472 in words". Admittedly this was on a Foundation paper but it still counts towards a GCSE. A Primary School pupil should know this!

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.


    "...Buddhism / Zen - look at the successful nations..."


    Yep. None of them generally compel their children to believe in Father Christmas.

    Good post.

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    It isn't simply schools that are failing pupils, there's a moronic significant & influential tendency amongst underachieving (thick) pupils that belittles those who value their intellect & strive to learn. A counter revolutionary change of mindset where the clarion call is "it's good to want to learn" would help topple the "if I can't then you won't" idiots who hold sway over their brighter peers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    LH @650
    Sounds good!

    I accompanied Home Educated to GCSE, handing-on to 'secondary' to meet practical & exam requirements, thence Oxbridge

    BUT, I recognise, preferability of wider relation, experience for all of 'work recognition' (AND of course recognition and appropriate response for illness, laziness, cheating, criminality)

    Income Equality for kids too

    If NONE to be 'let down'


  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    There are some children who will not benefit from an academic education and would be happier learning some sort of skill or trade.
    There are others who would benefit greatly from extra resources, and pay society back many-fold both in taxes and service as doctors, teachers, engineers etc.
    The Comprehensive School has let both down as has a one size fits all examination system .

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    "So you'll make the kids suffer due to who their parents are?"

    The kids don't HAVE to suffer. Their parents (collectively) have the power to prevent them suffering by improving the education system. And in the process improve everyone else's education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    There's no quick fix.

    If you want your own child to do well in maths then you're going to have to mould them in a way peculiar in the UK.

    You will have to defeat most of the messages emanating from TV, films, music, mags, internet. Advertisers don't see maths as cool.

    Also you'll have to teach them to be aware of perceptions of their peers

    Buddhism / Zen - look at the successful nations

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    "The report found that just 1.7% of England's 15-year-olds reached the highest level, Level 6, in maths"

    Pretty sure you've got your figures wrong here BBC. Unless the system has drastically changed since I did it 7 years ago, Level 6 was the expected level, not the highest obtainable. I know for a fact that I achieved a level 8 in Maths at 15...

  • rate this

    Comment number 657.

    @641.Sidney Monroe

    Don't allow your hatred of one political party to motivate your posting behaviour on HYS

    But presumably such hatred is most likely born of contempt for that party's values and so will not motivate posting behaviour at all, but will be expressed in conjunction with that behaviour.


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