Brightest English pupils fall two years behind Far Eastern peers between ages 10 and 16

22 February 2013

The highest-achieving pupils in England can almost match the most able children in Taiwan and Hong Kong in maths tests at the age of 10. But by the time they take their GCSEs they have fallen nearly two years behind their Far Eastern counterparts, a study has found.

The top 10 per cent of English children also appear to be losing ground to the most able pupils in other English-speaking and European countries between the ages of 10 and 16, say researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The findings will increase fears that the talents of the brightest English children are not being fully developed. Only last month Sir Michael Wilshaw, England's Chief Inspector of Schools, ordered a "rapid response survey" of how state schools teach the most able children. He predicted that it would result in a "landmark report".

Dr John Jerrim and Dr Alvaro Choi, authors of the IOE research, analysed children's performance in maths tests set by two respected international studies of attainment – the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The researchers studied the results of the TIMSS tests taken at age 9/10 (in 2003) and 13/14 (2007) as well as the PISA test for pupils aged 15/16 (2009). 
 
The IOE study, which was partly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and by the Pathways to Adulthood programme, looked particularly at England's scores relative to the "tiger" economies of East Asia. It also examined the performance of a wider group of countries that took part in all three tests -- Scotland, Australia, Italy, USA, Norway, Lithuania, Russia and Slovenia.
 
The average scores of England's pupils remained broadly similar to those of the other countries between age 10 and 16. However, the researchers found that the highest-achieving English children appeared to make less progress, relative to their peers in all the other countries – East and West – between these ages.
 
Dr Jerrim said that this finding was worrying. However, he added that it would be wrong to conclude that attention should now focus exclusively on raising standards in secondary schools. Earlier intervention is also required, he says, as pupils in England are already some distance behind those in East Asia – in terms of average maths attainment – by age 10.
 
He and Dr Choi believe that policymakers should:
o concentrate on reforming mathematics education in the early primary and pre-school years  
o invest more in the skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, again with a focus on the primary and pre-school years
o ensure that the secondary curriculum stretches the best young mathematicians – partly though initiatives such as gifted and talented schemes.
 
The researchers say that greater attention needs to be paid to the most able students as they will be vital to major British industries, such as financial services. However, they caution against dividing more children into ability groups from an early age, arguing that this could be counter-productive.
 
They also acknowledge that some of the solutions to the problems they have identified may lie outside the school system. "Cultural and social factors might be behind these countries' strong PISA and TIMSS test performance," Jerrim and Choi say. "In East Asian cultures, education has historically been highly valued. This can be seen not only in teachers' high salaries, but also in the heavy investment of families in private tutoring services.
 
"It's also worth remembering, of course, that factors which can lead to improved academic performance can have negative side-effects, such as increased psychological pressure on students and greater financial demands on parents. Yet, in an increasingly competitive world, such a cultural shift may be necessary to ensure England's future prosperity."
 
'The mathematics skills of schoolchildren: How does England compare to the high performing East Asian jurisdictions?', by John Jerrim and Alvaro Choi, is the latest in a series of working papers to be published by the Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London. It will be downloadable from http://www.ioe.ac.uk/research/35445.html from 9am on Friday, February 22.

Further information

David Budge
Institute of Education
d.budge@ioe.ac.uk
020 7911 5349 / 07881 415362

Notes for editors
 
1. The PISA survey is managed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development while the TIMSS   survey is co-ordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The 2009 PISA maths test was taken by 4,081 English pupils aged 15 and 16. England entered 3,585 children (aged 9 and 10) for the 2003 TIMSS test and 4,025 pupils (aged 13 and 14) for the 2007 TIMSS test.
2. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk
3. The IOE's Department of Quantitative Social Science (DoQSS) conducts world-leading multidisciplinary research, manages some of the UK's major longitudinal data resources and offers a range of postgraduate courses. The Department specialises in applying quantitative methods to data to inform policy on education, health, labour markets, human development and child/adult wellbeing. Its staff have expertise in economics, sociology, psychology, social statistics, survey methods and data collection, mixed-methods research, and policy evaluation techniques. More information from http://www.ioe.ac.uk/study/departments/369.html
4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk   
5. Dr Jerrim is an associate fellow of the Pathways to Adulthood programme, which is funded by the Jacobs Foundation. More at http://www.pathwaystoadulthood.org/about/
6. Dr Choi is based at the Barcelona Institute of Economics, a research centre at the University of Barcelona which specialises in applied economics.