British eight-year-olds lag far behind their peers in Taiwan and Hong Kong in maths, according to an international study.
The pioneering study of 2,500 children in eight countries reveals that the gulf between Britain and the Pacific Rim countries, well documented in secondary schools, is already in evidence in primary schools.
First findings from the study show the difference between top and bottom scorers is wider in Britain than in any other country and more than twice that in Taiwan and Hong Kong. That suggests British schools are serving low ability children badly.
Britain scored reasonably well in arithmetic with only Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Netherlands doing better. In using maths only the Netherlands and Norway did worse, with the United States, Canada and Australia all outperforming Britain. Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University, one of the study's architects, said: "Taiwan and Hong Kong are not cultures for able children. They are doing well because they are serving low ability children well."
The International School Effectiveness project is the first to investigate how culture and society affect performance and to examine whether what works in Taiwan would work in Britain.
Taiwanese children are taught in classes of 40 or more with the teacher teaching the whole class. In Britain most children are in smaller classes and are taught in groups for much of the time.
But researchers say Taiwan's teaching methods work only because the whole culture is geared to hard work. Even in the least successful schools, with the least competent teachers, children still keep on achieving.
Professor Reynolds said: "It is dangerous to say large classes would work in Britain. You can do it if you have very disciplined children and commitment to education. If you have lots of direct instruction, as in Taiwan, it makes no difference whether you have 20 or 40 in a class. But I should be very dubious about the notion that it explains why Taiwan does well."
The project is to expand next year to include 12 more countries and to examine which aspects of successful schooling may cross national boundaries.
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