When the International Maths and Science Study was last carried out six years ago, results of English 13-year-olds were 3 per cent above the world average. This time, it found they were 2 per cent below. England was 19th out of 27 broadly comparable countries in maths, but 6th out of 27 in science. In a group of nine industrialised countries, England came last in algebra and number work.
Some commentators have suggested children in countries such as Japan and Korea do better at maths because their culture values education and hard work. But David Reynolds, of Newcastle upon Tyne University, author of another recent survey of comparisons in maths and science, said: "This study showing that we are doing well in science explodes once and for all the idea that the reason for our poor performance in maths is cultural. It is clearly to do with our school system and our technology of teaching. England used to be at the bottom of the second division. It has now moved into the third."
That three-quarters of lesson time is spent on individual and group work in England - much more than elsewhere - may be particularly damaging in maths, Professor Reynolds believes.
Nearly 14,000 English pupils took part in the survey, which included 46 countries. They answered 53 per cent of the maths questions correctly. Singapore, where pupils scored 79 per cent, was top. The average was 55 per cent. France, Belgium, Switzerland and Ireland all did better than England.
Even the US, which traditionally has lagged behind England, is ahead. In science, by comparison, only Singapore, Japan, Korea and the Czech Republic did better. In the last study, England was 2 per cent above the average; now it is almost 6 per cent above.
Wendy Keys, one of the study's authors, suggested a reason for the improved science performance might be that more time was being spent on science than 30 years ago. Another explanation may be the introduction of the national curriculum, which makes science compulsory in all primary schools. Primary school teachers, many of whom had little experience of teaching science, have had to brush up their knowledge and technique.
The national curriculum and testing have not had the same effect in maths. Professor Reynolds believes it is because teaching methods, not a centralised curriculum and testing, are the key to improved performance.