Education: Staying where we are is not good enough: The facts do not support complaints about falling standards in teaching the three Rs. But, says Judith Judd, performance is not improving either

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The Independent Online
HEADLINES such as 'Britain's schools: the damning verdict' or 'Reading standards decline' tell a sorry and fairly consistent story. But most experts agree that deciding whether standards are rising or falling is a tricky business.

The independent National Commission on Education, which is investigating education from nursery to university, has tried to distil fact from fiction in a paper by researchers at the National Foundation for Educational Research, published today. The review concludes that standards of reading and writing have remained much the same since the Second World War. In maths they have risen in some skills but fallen in others.

The researchers argue, however, that the important issue is not so much that standards are not falling, but that they may not be rising quickly enough to cope with a rapidly changing technological society. Britain also needs to consider whether it is lagging behind other industrialised countries. Greg Brooks, one of the authors, says: 'The widespread perception that standards are falling is wrong, but the expectations of what kids should be able to do are rising faster.'

The paper, by Derek Foxman, Tom Gorman and Mr Brooks, looks at work in England to examine reading standards, because international studies shed little light on national performance. An NFER study found that standards among seven- and eight-year- olds fell slightly in the late Eighties, but the significance of the drop is disputed.

For 11- and 15-year-olds, the paper argues that reading standards between 1952 and 1979 remained unchanged, according to surveys using standardised tests conducted mostly by the NFER. During the Eighties, the government's Assessment of Performance Unit found that reading standards among 11-year- olds improved slightly. Fifteen-year- olds' reading improved slightly between 1979 and 1983 and remained the same between 1983 and 1988. Writing standards for this age-group stayed the same, while those for 11-year-olds went up until 1983, but then fell slightly. Contrary to claims that spelling is in decline, the unit found that 15-year-olds' spelling has stayed much the same, while that of 11-year-olds is a little better.

Reports of widespread illiteracy are greatly exaggerated, according to the authors. Less than 1 per cent of school- leavers are unable to read, in the sense that they cannot answer simple questions about a passage. But that does not mean they are properly prepared for either work or life.

In maths, the researchers looked at work done in England and Wales by the Assessment of Performance Unit, and at studies comparing UK pupils with those of other countries. The first shows that maths performance improved between 1978 and 1982. In the next five years, standards in geometry, probability, statistics and measuring continued to get better, but those in number (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) and algebra declined. These changes, the paper suggests, were probably influenced by the 1982 Cockcroft report, which recommended more practical work in maths, mental arithmetic, estimation and the use of different methods of calculation, such as calculators.

Critics have made much of Britain's poor performance in maths compared with other countries, but the commission's paper paints a more complicated picture. English children were below average in number skills, but above average in geometry and statistics. In the Sixties and Seventies, England and Wales slipped back in comparison with other countries, including Japan, France and the United States.

In the past decade, the position of England in tables from studies of six countries has remained the same. English pupils come top in the handling of statistics and data, and bottom in number. France and Hungary come top in everything except data handling.

Research among older pupils shows that English and Welsh schools are good at teaching the brightest children but much less effective than other countries with below-average pupils.

While the commission's paper offers a useful and concise guide to the state of research about standards, it does not tackle in detail the objections that have been raised to international comparisons. Martin McLean, in a pamphlet just published by London University's Institute of Education, argues that maths is an unsuitable subject for international comparison.

In The Promise and Perils of International Comparison he says that the variation in curricula between different countries renders comparison invalid. Pupils' performance may be affected because some are used to continuous assessment, while others are accustomed to frequent written tests.

Mr Foxman, however, is confident there are lessons to be learnt from international comparisons. 'Despite the difficulties, consistent messages are coming out from all surveys. One is that there is a problem in England with low attainers, the other that English pupils are weak in number.'

He suggests that the weakness in basic number skills might be due to the inadequate emphasis teachers place on adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. When teachers are questioned, they say they emphasise number, but this is not reflected in test results. 'A lot of educators would say that there is less need for number skills now we have technology such as calculators. It is a matter for discussion whether the present position is satisfactory.'

The paper calls for an effective system of monitoring educational standards to help resolve the controversy. The Government expects national curriculum tests to provide that comparative guide. But the NFER researchers say such tests will be an inadequate measure, partly because they are marked by teachers. Instead, the paper argues, there should be specially designed surveys using representative samples of pupils sitting externally marked tests.

(Photograph omitted)