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English/Asian mathematics education comparison: what the IoE report actually says

According to a report by the University of London’s Institute of Education, the very best 10-year-old English students are as good at maths as their counterparts around the world, but have fallen behind by around two years by the time they reach their GCSEs.

Cue frothy-mouthed calls for more rigour and tougher exams, presumably since you can’t string people up for not being good at maths, even if it is the only language they understand. Cue also a great deal of “it’s all their fault” finger-pointing and insulting generalisations of the “of course, those Asians value study more highly” variety.

The reaction is depressingly familiar. Even when I was at school (mid-90s, since you ask), excellent exam results were taken as a signal that the exams weren’t hard enough. Now, it seems that comparatively poor results mean exactly the same thing.

For the record, Jerrim and Choi don’t conclude anything of the sort. It’s interesting reading, largely for the bits left out of the press release. Their main recommendations for policymakers:

  • To narrow the mathematics achievement gap with the leading East Asian nations, English policymakers should concentrate on educational reforms in primary and pre-school.
  • Yet there is also a need to ensure that high achieving school children in England manage to keep pace with the highest achieving pupils in other countries during secondary school via, for instance, gifted and talented schemes.
  • Further efforts are needed to raise the basic skills of disadvantaged groups, again with a focus on the primary and pre-school years.
  • Over the longer-term, a cultural shift in England may be needed, where the importance of education is recognised and promoted by all.

Buried in reporting of the study is the finding that, for the average student, things are the other way around: the Asian countries are well ahead by age 10, and there’s no significant change in the gap over the next six years.

Also, Jerrim and Choi report that England has one of the largest socio-economic achievement gradients of all of the countries in the study: the better off you are, the more likely you are to do well in the tests – most of this is evident in primary school, although the gap widens further over time. The authors propose, cautiously, that helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should be done in the early years. Intriguingly, East Asian schools have weaker selection processes than English schools, suggesting that streaming and selection hinder more than they help.

When they talk of ‘educational reform’, though, they don’t mean ‘shake up the curriculum yet again.’ They mean that, in East Asia, teachers are high academic performers with a duty to study and research, and are comparatively well-paid; raising the prestige of primary-school teaching in England ‘could be an important lever ((See also Nokidding and Sherlock, 2012.))’ for improving primary education.

Their final conclusion is that the curriculum at secondary school doesn’t stretch the ablest students enough. The widespread use of tutoring ((What conflict of interest?!)) in East Asia – both for struggling and excelling students – is held up as a possible reason, and the authors recommend extending Gifted and Talented programs, enhanced tuition for students doing well, and a shift away from baseline targets (such as Grade C at GCSE).

The authors caution that it’s not just policies – which may, of course, be bungled – but the country’s attitude towards maths that needs to change. If England wants to do better at maths, it needs to believe in the value of maths – and in working hard at it.

Further reading

Full report: The mathematics skills of school children: How does England compare to the high performing East Asian jurisdictions?.
Guardian: Star maths pupils in England two years behind Asian peers by age 16.
The Independent: English pupils ‘two years behind’ Asian peers in maths.
Telegraph: Bright pupils ‘falling two years behind peers in Far East’.
PISA (Wikipedia).
TIMSS (Wikipedia).

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