Why the English are bad at maths

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The Independent Online
English nine-year-olds use calculators more and are taught less often as a whole class in maths lessons than children in countries which far outperform England in the subject, according to international research.

At secondary level, where England also lags well behind other nations in maths, 13-year-olds spend less time than their counterparts abroad on the subject overall and are set less homework.

A study published yesterday examines the influences which could explain the results of a major survey revealing that English children in both age groups struggle in maths compared with their contemporaries in Pacific Rim and other countries but outstrip them in science.

Its findings have already been seized on by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, as evidence to support the Government's drive for a minimum homework requirement.

In primary schools, children taught maths using traditional whole-class methods - the technique being advocated by the Government for literacy and numeracy teaching - were more likely to gain higher scores in tests set by researchers.

Meanwhile, countries - including England - where pupils routinely used calculators, generally did worse in the maths league tables. England's relatively low ranking - tenth out of 17 nations - came despite the fact that primary schools spent more time on maths than virtually every other country in the survey.

However, the study found a very different picture in secondary schools. It revealed English schools were roughly in line with other nations on levels of whole-class teaching in maths lessons, but gave the subject less time than schools in other countries and set homework less often.

Thirteen-year-old pupils tended to do best in both maths and science in those countries where they had more lesson time and more homework, the research showed.

The findings are the second part of an international maths and science study, carried out in England by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The first part looked at comparative performances of nine- and 13-year- olds in maths and science tests, while the latest section compares underlying factors such as time spent in lessons, class size, styles of teaching, levels of homework and teachers' and students' attitudes.

Researchers in England are particularly interested in the findings for the younger age group, because in primary schools children are taught both maths and science by the same teacher, yet achieve very different results relative to other countries.

Advocates of traditional teaching, including chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, are likely to point to the study as evidence that whole- class teaching, mental arithmetic and plenty of homework are the crucial factors in achieving good maths results.

The same factors do not appear to have the same influence on science results.

However, Wendy Keys, one of three authors of the NFER report, stressed there might be no causal relationship between teaching styles and results. "I don't want to say that you only have to use whole class teaching and stop using calculators and you have solved it.

"Time spent and homework are the things to be looked at first before we start castigating teachers for not teaching the right way."

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