Pupils 'no better at maths than 30 years ago'

Pupils are no better at maths today than they were 30 years ago, despite the soaring exam pass rate, research suggests today.

Rising scores in maths have little to do with improvements in secondary school pupils' mathematical understanding, according to a study by Kings College London and Durham University.

Researchers analysed the test results of 3,000 11 to 14-year-olds in England who sat a series of maths exams covering algebra, ratio and decimals that were originally taken in 1976 by teenagers of the same age.

They found that pupils are now more familiar with decimals, but struggle more with fractions.

While pupils 30 years ago tended to convert decimals into fractions to solve a problem, today's pupils do the opposite.

There was little change in maths attainment overall, the researchers found.

But the maths pass rate has risen steeply in the past 30 years.

In 1982, a fifth of pupils gained at least a C in their maths O-level. Last year, more than half of pupils in England (56.4%) achieved at least a C in their maths GCSE.

The study also found that a higher proportion of children put in a very low performance in each of the tests in 2008 than in 1976.

The researchers said they still needed to investigate the reason for this, but suggested a number of causes;

* A greater proportion of pupils with learning difficulties may have been in special schools in 1976, and would not have taken part in the study.

* Schools catering to more pupils with English as an Additional Language.

* Less willingness now among pupils to take the tests.

* Less incentive for pupils to help low-achieving pupils.

* A greater use now of a curriculum that is targeted at middle-achieving pupils, which could mean that the needs of the brightest and the lowest-achieving pupils are ignored.

The researchers, who will present their findings at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference in Manchester today said their 2008 sample was "slightly skewed" towards higher-attaining pupils.

But they added: "Nevertheless, the overwhelming conclusion is that there are far fewer changes in mathematical attainment over a 32-year period than might be expected, or which have been claimed.

"There are greater proportions of pupils with very low attainment in 2008, and either similar or slightly better performance at the higher end. There is no evidence for significant improvement, or significant deterioration, of standards between 1976/7 and 2008.

"Although performance in some areas has improved it looks as if, when all the results are analysed, there will be little evidence for the sort of step-change in mathematical attainment which might be suggested by the claimed improvements in examination results."

Schools Minister Diana Johnson said: "It's time to stop doing down the achievements of our young people. The independent TIMSS 2007 report on mathematics showed pupils in England are making real progress, with only a handful of South East Asian countries doing better.

"Regular rigorous monitoring of standards at GCSE by the independent regulator has shown that standards have been maintained.

"We do not think that research based on tests in a small number of specific topics taken in 11 schools by 11 to 14-year-olds is a good way to judge standards in the maths GCSE - an exam which tests the full breadth of the curriculum and that is taken by older pupils from all schools in the country."