Yet another depressing global study reveals that our top maths students fail to keep pace with the world’s best. At age 10, our brightest compared favourably internationally, but by 16, although overall performance had not worsened, our best had done less well, dropping well behind those in Taiwan and Hong Kong (Slovenia, Norway etc). Our bottom 10 per cent had caught up slightly over the same period of time. We can be pleased about this, while lamenting the lag at the top end – they should not be mutually exclusive aims.
The explanation is not as simple as my usual anti “teaching to the test” diatribe, although the findings give further evidence that this is the case. As much of an influence here are more ephemeral factors such as that “aspiration”.
Listening to the Asian students interviewed about the findings, or talking to my daughters’ Asian school friends about studies into why Asians do so much better in maths and physics, it’s clear that a mixture of parental and cultural expectation combined with sheer bloody-minded, focused hard work is at its heart.
British teens can joke about the classic “Asian combo” A-level choice (double-maths, triple-science), but it is a humour based partly on an admiration that this is their choice. We are now so scared of ambition that we characterise parents who encourage their children as “pushy”, so intimidated by difficult subjects that we label those willing to embrace the daunting challenge of the hard work as “geeks”.
You may have noticed that geeks – like Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg – have ruled the world for years. We must reframe our attitude to ambition, shrug off class-consciousness to stop stigmatising aspiration, work harder and celebrate meaningful achievement.