Pupils two years behind Continent in maths

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Education Correspondent

English children at the end of primary school are up to two years behind their Swiss counterparts in maths even though they have been in school for about 18 months less, according to research published today.

Swiss children spend more time on arithmetic, particularly mental arithmetic, and more time practising what they learn, the paper from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research says.

English children spend more time working alone and have to tackle more difficult mathematical concepts before they are confident in the simpler ones.

The study looked at how eight- and nine-year-olds were taught maths in England, Switzerland and Germany, where maths teaching has been intensively researched.

On the Continent two-thirds of the lesson would be given to the whole class, with children expected to answer lots of questions and write answers on the blackboard or an overhead projector. In contrast, English schools relied mainly on individual work books with children getting a minute or two from the teacher as he or she moved around the class to attend to children individually.

Four-fifths of the time was spent on arithmetic on the Continent, whereas in England the national curriculum specified numbers as only one of four maths attainment targets.

Swiss and German children spend longer on each maths topic before moving on to the next. Typical Continental textbooks have six times as many exercises per topic as English textbooks. Progression of topics is also more carefully graded than in English textbooks where more difficult concepts are introduced before it is assumed the children have mastered the simpler ones.

The study was funded by the Gatsby Foundation, one of the Sainsbury charities, which is now funding a trial introduction of Continental maths teaching methods into six primary schools in Essex. Early indications from the year-old scheme suggest the number of pupils performing poorly in maths is beginning to decline. Heads and class teachers were taken to watch maths lessons in Swiss and German schools before coming back and introducing the techniques in their own classrooms.

Graham Last, senior schools inspector for Barking and Dagenham, said year groups on the Continent had minimum standards they were expected to achieve in maths and teachers gave this their very highest priority. "Our national curriculum, in contrast, does not tell you what children should achieve by the end of each year group."

The authority has now produced detailed lesson notes and bought overhead projectors for the primary schools taking part in the project so teachers can use the Continental style of whole-class teaching.

He said: "Children don't get left behind. If, at the end or the oral session, there are four or five children who don't understand what is being taught the teacher can work with them."

David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, hoped the study will be examined by government curriculum advisers. "There is a worrying and widening gap in performance in maths between our children and those in other European countries. This huge gap suggests that we must learn from the way in which the subject is taught in countries such as Switzerland and Germany if we are to raise standards."

9 Laying the Foundations of Numeracy:a comparison of primary school textbooks in Britain, Germany and Switzerland, by Helvia Bierhoff. National Institute Discussion Paper 90.