Classroom gap widens between top and bottom

Study shows pupils in England lag far behind those in Pacific Rim countries
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The Independent Online
English schools have a longer tail of under-achieving pupils than those in other countries, according to an authoritative study of pupils' performance in science and maths published yesterday.

The report, commissioned by the Office For Standards in Education, suggests that English teaching methods widened the gap between the brightest and dullest pupils.

Even by the age of nine, the gap between the brightest and the dullest is wider than elsewhere, Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, the author of the study, said. He urged schools in England to look at teaching methods in Taiwan and Switzerland in order to reduce the high proportion of pupils who perform badly.

His review of English pupils' performance compared with those in other countries over the past 30 years shows that in maths, English pupils lagged far behind those in the Pacific Rim. They also failed to match pupils in many European countries. Performance in science was slightly better, however.

Prof Reynolds said schools should imitate the motor industry and learn from abroad. "The motor industry saved itself from bankruptcy by creating a British blend of elements from other countries," he said.

Teaching methods here are too complicated, rely too much on work-sheets and too little on good, whole-class teaching, the report says. In primary schools teachers are too eager to divide children into groups of different ability.

The gap between the worst and best English schools is also wider than in other countries. Differences between schools account for 12 per cent of pupils' performance in England, compared with only 1 per cent in Taiwan.

The report suggests that children in Pacific Rim countries may be doing better because pupils use the same textbooks, there is more high-quality, whole-class teaching and more frequent tests, and schools are continually trying to reduce the "trailing edge" of children.

European countries may also have lessons to teach us, the report suggests. Many try to reduce the range of ability in classes by holding pupils down a year or putting them up a year.

Our school system differs from that in much of Europe, the report points out. They have mixed-ability primary schools, whereas we tend to group children by ability within primary classes. European schools have selection in later years, though none select as early as 11, whereas we have a comprehensive system.

The report paints a gloomy picture of English pupils' achievements. "Performance in maths is relatively poor overall, but with some strength in data handling and geometry and considerable weakness in arithmetic or number." And it is getting worse. On common questions set in international surveys in the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, English pupils' performance deteriorated.

Only at 17 when the "trailing edge" has dropped out of the system is the performance of English pupils relatively good.

Prof Reynolds said that while cultural differences, such as the higher status of teachers in Taiwan and greater parental commitment to education, could explain some of the variations in pupils' performance, they could not explain them all.

For example, the most recent research showed that English performance in science was improving. "If we are good in one subject area, as we seem to be increasingly good in science, how can that be in the culture?"

The report concludes: "We would argue that the situation in which England finds itself is so worrying that the risk involved in looking outward and trying new practices is worth taking. Indeed, limited experimentation with non- British practice seems positively overdue."

Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, said: "We are not suggesting that methods that work in one culture can be transplanted in a naive, simple way. This is not an exercise in bashing teachers. It is an attempt to contribute to the debate about standards."

How 13-year-olds

compare with the rest of the world

Country Position %Answers


China 1 80

Korea 2 73

Taiwan 73

Switzerland 4 71

Frmr USSR 5 70

Hungary 6 68

France 7 64

Italy 64

Israel 9 63

Canada 10 62

Scotland 11 61

Ireland 61

England 61

Slovenia 14 57

Spain 15 55

USA 55

Portugal 17 48

Jordan 18 40

Test was devised to be

applied to any country