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 756.


    "Hmm you have described a memorable part of my grammar school education. bullying kids bullying teachers, teachers standing idly by.."

    Is your real name Roger Waters by any chance ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 755.

    "*if* you cannot choose any of those solutions *and* the law won't help you *and* so have to suffer "hell" for years"...

    ...and if I can find them...maybe I can hire...The A- Team?

    It's about as serious a suggestion as home school as a good solution. But the argument is pointless, so I'm out of here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 754.

    Re735 Snooty Nice one Please dont overlook Isambard Kingdom Brunnel, James Watt,Frank Whittle,John Logie Baird (Scot) and all the others the UK produced! Once upon a time, when this country was the centre of EXCELLENCE There just are too many to list in so few words allocated on here. Where exactly does this guy live?No offence meant but did he ever attend school ? Before equal ignorance 4all

  • rate this

    Comment number 753.


    "Grammar schools just for the rich, what nonsense."

    On the front perhaps, but the wealthy are the ones who can afford extra one-to-one tuition for a few years to get their children into grammar schools. It's much cheaper than that public school lark. Besides, it was mentioned earlier that education is not solution to the UK's economic trouble.

  • rate this

    Comment number 752.

    745.Total Mass Retain

    In the UK it never means any of those things - got any other 'if's' to consider?

  • rate this

    Comment number 751.

    "Half as likely...as in the average developed nation"? Disgraceful!
    This being the case, it is hardly surprising that we have bankers who can't set a correct interest rates and successive Chancellors of the Exchequer who can't balance the books.

  • rate this

    Comment number 750.

    Yet another survey confirms what many people have been telling successive governments for decades....bright children do better at independent and state grammar schools. Children should be able to move between Comprehensive and Grammar education at any time during full time secondary education...according to assessed development and aptitude. In other words, reverse all of Labour's past policies

  • rate this

    Comment number 749.

    "737. alexicon
    And part of it, is the use of mentors which means the teacher can focus on the less able."

    So, no teacher for the bright or average, then, just "mentors"?

    What would be the qualifications of these "mentors"?
    And how many mentors would you have for those twenty one children, in one room?

  • rate this

    Comment number 748.


    "...Children are born with no knowledge of language and no idea of maths...Their conscious mind is a blank space..."


    I agree with the overall angle of your post, but on this point, I'd recommend a look at what Noam Chomsky has to say, and to reflect on your own experience of life and the world too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 747.

    ". And part of it, is the use of mentors which means the teacher can focus on the less able."

    (1) That's simply streaming - just less efficient than splitting up into classes
    (2) If the teacher is focussing on the less able then the more able are not getting the attention and so being disadvantaged


  • rate this

    Comment number 746.


    Taken out of context. The discussion was about kids being bullied for being clever. There will always be sociopaths who pick on others, but at a grammar school it's not based on intelligence. I have seen first hand a very intelligent friend deliberately fail exams to stop the assaults at our wonderful comp.

  • rate this

    Comment number 745.

    Money spent on a good education is NEVER a bad thing."

    If it means not being able to feed your kids, take them to museums or other mind expanding activities or if it means they don't get to encounter people they will have to deal with when they enter the "real world" it might be a bad thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 744.

    My son passed GCSE early with an A and did AS level in year 11. This stretched him. However, in year 12 he is going to repeat all of the AS level again. My friend's child is even better at maths but the school she attends is stopping teaching AS level in year 11 so she is going to be bored. We complain that we need more maths skills yet don't stretch our most able.

  • rate this

    Comment number 743.

    AfA @736
    Education by Conscience

    For the removal of 400ch doubt, by "cut our luxury" I referred to equalisation of income-shares (child, adult, sick, old), living within our means to allow calculated control of deficit prospects and debt-reduction, investing as possible in global education for a democratic future as well as 'fire-fighting'

  • rate this

    Comment number 742.

    Grammar schools just for the rich, what nonsense. I came from a slum but passed the 11+ & went to a grammar school. From there I never looked back. It's selection by ability only - not money, status, culture, race or anything else. We need to rid ourselves of the "everyone is equal" brigade who force us into dumbed down Comprehensive equality but send their kids to private schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 741.


    If thugs assault me and teachers stand idly by, the fault lies with my attackers and my school, ..The "resources" their generation had were grammar schools which were denied to me.

    Hmm you have described a memorable part of my grammar school education. bullying kids bullying teachers, teachers standing idly by..

  • rate this

    Comment number 740.

    Re 601 Toledo Well do tell ! My sister,grammar school educated,and very highly qualified/experienced in a specific area, left the NHS because Those that CAN!! DO NOT need those who CAN'T with clipboards and no medical qualifications(poss paid more?)Telling them whats urgent or how it should be done!! There lies the majority of this countries present problems! How about letting teachers teach!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 739.

    @612 joeordinary, who wrote '.. until private education is banned and EVERYONE has a stake in making the state system work to its full potential....

    As responded at 733. by Anonymous Please, we do all already have a stake, whether we are private or not. The problem is that not enough parents care for / value their childrens education sufficiently. This is where you should look for solutions

  • rate this

    Comment number 738.

    Having read this report, in my opinion it is nothing more than yet another attempt to influence education policy in the interests of a political viewpoint rather than genuine interests of children. The statistics quoted are subjective and therefore so too the conclusions. The criteria used to identify gifted are based on interpretation not actual measurement open to rigging by schools..

  • rate this

    Comment number 737.

    Twenty one kids in one physical room, five bright, eleven average, five thick, three of the latter noisy and disruptive. One teacher.

    Go on then, let's have your innovative alternatives....

    oh yeah in 400 words or less. Nonetheless i shall blog them when i get a chance. And part of it, is the use of mentors which means the teacher can focus on the less able.


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