We are falling down the international league tables in maths claims Reform. No we are not, counters the Government. So, who is right?


A Report last week from the Reform think tank which appealed for more focus on core academic subjects in schools, pointed out that UK performance at 16, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), found that the UK fell from 8th to 24th place in maths from 2000 to 2006.

 Vernon Coaker, the schools minister, in a letter to the Times (3 December) refuted this claim, saying the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study (TIMMS) shows that at Year 9 since 1995 we have risen to 7th out of 49 countries in maths and 5th out of 49 in science.

So who is right? Well, they are referring to two different studies.

Reform was referring to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a project of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). PISA is a collaborative activity among the 30 member countries of the OECD, plus some partner countries and economies, bringing together scientific expertise from the participating countries and steered jointly by their governments. Whereas the study being referred to by Coaker, which covers 14 year olds, not the 16 year old cohort covered by PISA, is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science study 2007 run by the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, in association with IEA. So ,they are not comparing like with like.

Coaker, however, did not take the trouble to mention that in the most recent TIMMS survey (2007) a large number of comparator countries did not actually take part. So it would be stretching credibility to suggest, on this basis, that we are actually 7th strongest in maths internationally. If you look at the earlier 2003 survey, in which more nations participated, we were 14th. (which is not as bad as it might at first seem, given that we were ahead of New Zealand , Italy and Norway though behind Russia , Lithuania and Hungary ).To complicate matters the countries we should be comparing ourselves against -Germany and France -didn’t take part in TIMMS ,though they did PISA.-where they came ahead of the UK but not by a particularly significant margin. The message seems to be that the Government is very selective about the statistics it uses and over eggs the positives, while brushing aside the negatives. It was ever thus. Which is why we are tiresomely obliged to look behind government announcements to get the full picture (call it the Campbell legacy). But then again, we aren’t doing as badly as we could be, internationally, and are doing better, it seems, than the United States, at least according to the PISA study. The US continues its soul searching over how to address its relatively poor standards within the context of its Federal system.

Talking of comparisons, we can be proud of the fact that we probably have the best independent schools in the world. The OECD reported in 2002 that British independent schools achieved the best results of any schools in the world. In tests set by OECD for 250,000 15-year-olds in 32 countries, those in UK independent schools outstripped similar groups in all other countries.

There is no reason to believe that much has changed since this 2002 study.

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