England is not the dunce of Europe after all

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The Independent Online

We are not the dunce of Europe: it's official. The true reason for England's poor showing in international maths league tables is revealed at last - other countries enter a higher proportion of clever children for national tests.

We are not the dunce of Europe: it's official. The true reason for England's poor showing in international maths league tables is revealed at last - other countries enter a higher proportion of clever children for national tests.

It's not that our Continental neighbours are cheating, just that they are playing by different rules.

During the past 15 years, a series of international studies has shown English pupils languishing in the bottom half of the league.

What they have failed to show is that some of our competitors achieve their success because of the Continental tradition of making failing pupils repeat a year.

A paper from Professor Margaret Brown of London University's King's College points out that the studies test children in a year group. But in some European countries, as many as a quarter of pupils are not in the expected class because they have been held back for failing their exams.

So in the Third International Maths and Science Study, nine out of the 39 countries, including France, Germany, Portugal and Romania, excluded 20 per cent or more of the slowest 13-year-olds from the tests because they had been held back.

Meanwhile, between 10 and 20 per cent of the lowest attaining 13-year-olds were excluded in a further 10 countries including Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Belgium and Spain. The comparable figure excluded for England was 1 per cent.

If the age differences were taken into account Germany, held up by experts as a model of educational rectitude and which appears to be slightly ahead of England, would be trailing well behind, the paper suggests. Clearly, it says, the German pupils were "older than average and the lowest-attaining 27 per cent of 13-year-olds were missing completely from the sample".

The same was true of Slovenia, which was also well ahead of England.

It is not only pupils' age range which handicaps England in the classroom rat-race. In some countries, the pupils at the very bottom of the heap are not part of the sample because they are in special schools. In the case of the Second International Maths Study, the Netherlands excluded more than 17 per cent of pupils because they were in special schools. For France the figure was 12 per cent.

"Correcting for this would have brought the results for both countries down to those for England. In comparison to other European countries very few English pupils are in special schools," Professor Brown says. Then there is the question of curriculum. Sometimes English pupils do badly simply because they are taught in a different way. Professor Brown said English maths teaching puts much more emphasis on solving real-life problems than abstract calculation.

But the news from her paper is only partly good.

Low-achieving pupils in the Pacific Rim countries do not repeat a year and they are the real stars of the international test scene.

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