Education & Family

England's schools 'letting future maths stars down'

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

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.

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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