Doubts cast on Telegraph claims about falling maths standards

Janet Downs's picture
FullFact investigated a Telegraph article stating that maths standards in schools had “declined sharply” since the 1970s. The Telegraph cited research by Dr Jeremy Hodgen, lecturer in education at King’s College, London, to justify its claim. But FullFact found that Dr Hodgen’s research indicated only “a slight decline in attainment over the 30 year period” although the number of pupils who didn’t reach Level 1 had markedly increased (from 7% in 1976 to 15% in 2008/9). The Telegraph, therefore, based its conclusion about falling maths standards on the lower results at the top end and ignored the “slight decline” overall.

The Telegraph also didn’t say that Dr Hodgen’s investigation was restricted to ratio tests and did not look at maths generally. Earlier research by Dr Hodgen in 2009 which looked at pupils’ performance in algebra, ratio and decimals tests found “there has been little overall change in maths attainments since 1976.”

Following FullFact’s investigation which find the Telegraph article to be misleading, the paper should issue a correction.

Update (published 30 June 2012):  On 21 June 2012, Michael Gove misled the House by saying: “researchers from King’s college London reporting today that teenagers’ maths skills have declined over the last 30 years.”  Mr Gove should also issue a correction and apologise to fellow MPs for his error.

Update (3 July 2012): FullFact has published an update to their investigation.  This can be read in full by clicking on the FullFact link above.  The update said that Dr Hodgen’s research also found decline in pupils’ ability to handle fractions and algebra but a slight increase in some aspects of pupils’ understanding of decimals.  FullFact concluded that the Telegraph’s headline was a fair summary of the research but the subject was more complex that the headline suggested.  Dr Hodgen pointed out that the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) survey revealed a different trend.  This is discussed more fully here.


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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 25/06/2012 - 21:52

I've done some work with Jeremy ( and have discussed these issues in particular with his long term (recently retired) boss Margaret Brown at Kings who is a highly respected authority on all the data related to national and international comparisons in maths education.

It's because I've spent a lot of time listening to Margaret that I understand the detail of the interpretation of the different data streams and can comment rapidly and in depth in the way I just did at 8:04pm this evening on on Francis' thread three before this one.

It's difficult to reply to the kind of request Jeremy will have been sent because what people really want to know is 'are we getting better or worse at maths' and of course that depends one what you define maths as being, what you choose to measure, what international data is available and so on. When you look at details you get positive and negative results and its interesting and constructive to explore why those results have occurred and what can be learned from that explanation.

When the likes of Margaret Brown speak they tend to want to speak at length - analysing the contexts and reasons for particular results as well as their validity. They are fascinating speakers and are well worth listening to. But they are often reluctant to be drawn when they know people only want soundbite answers and they know that those soundbites are likely to conceal rather than reveal insight.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 13:04

You make a good point about people (I presume you mean the media) only wanting soundbites. I would go further and say that the much of the media ignores nuance and grabs at sensational bits of info taken out of context, distorted and published. The Telegraph article was a case in point - the "slight decline" became a sharp one. The Telegraph also missed the fact that the research only tested one mathematical skill: dealing with ratio. Instead, it reported the results as if they covered the whole branch of mathematics. The Telegraph also omitted earlier results which showed little overall change in 30 years although this would not be enough to satisfy those who scream about "plummeting" standards: "Hurumph! No improvement! Disgraceful!".

It's also important to remember that OECD found no significant change in UK maths scores between 2006 and 2009 (the only dates when data is reliable enough to make a valid comparison) and the Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2007 found that English students were at the top of the European league and beat PISA high performers such as Australia and New Zealand.

However, any good news about English/UK education is usually ignored by the media as I point out on the thread below when European praise for maths teaching in England was not published in any newspaper when I searched. Neither did it receive any acknowledgement from the Government.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 13:25

I've just been looking at the new report for the 2009 study. It found that pupils in 2009 were weaker in fractions but much more adept at decimals. It said that thirty years ago people converted decimals into fractions in order to do the calculations.

I don't know about thirty years ago - I do that now.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 13:35

That sounds to me like the teachers were still thinking with minds honed by pre-decimal life.

Meraud's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 16:16

Funny, and a nit of a sidetrack, but I hadn't thought about it until now: for things I'm doing in my head, especially guesstimate-type numbers I need quickly, I do the opposite - convert fractions into decimals or percentages. It's not always sensible, obviously, but it's my natural tendency when I can - presumably that makes me very definitely a child of the post-decimalization period!

Paul's picture
Mon, 02/07/2012 - 09:58

Might be because thirty years ago there were very few calculators and complicated arithmetic was done using Log Tables and Slide Rule approximations.

It is also probably partly connected to decimalisation in 1971 because the old shilling/pence made no sense as a decimal, same for feet/inches, pounds/ounces etc.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 14:24

Rebecca - when I did O level maths it was definitely a pre-decimal world. We did compound interest in pounds, shillings and pence. I had a brilliant maths teacher (Cert Ed, no degree) who covered decimals but it's just that I was more comfortable with changing them to fractions in order to do the sums. I'm the same with measurements - always pounds and ounces, feet and inches, never metres. The only exception is when I went diving and then I measured depth in metres not feet (I always got the jitters if I went deeper than about ten metres - I was rather a drippy diver. much happier flopping about it the shallows).

Meraud's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 16:17

bit, not nit.......

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 16:29

I think this emphasises the difficulties in measuring whether achievement goes up or down over time. Today's pupils are better at decimals but worse in handling fractions. But what does that actually tell us about standards? I used log tables and had no calculator. Was my standard of maths higher or lower than that of a 16-year-old today who has to grapple with probability (not covered)?

Dr Hodgen's research did use identical questions - it found that there was no change in 30 years when he researched algebra, ratio and fractions in 2009, and a slight decline in the handling of ratio in the last research. But algebra, ratio and fractions are not the whole of maths - where's the geometry and those problems which ask pupils to apply maths to practical problems?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 16:53

People's propensity for using different methods varies depending on the experiences they have had. These change as a society through things like decimalisation and they vary between students depending on their interests and the maths they do away from class.

A group of students can all tackle the same question and get the same results but they will be 'seeing' different things in their heads and using different methods. When we train teachers one of the key things we have to work on with them is coming to understand that it's not good enough just to see one way of doing things, they have to expect that children will be attempting to use all sorts of other strategies and to work with that. It's not an easy thing to teach, it takes time. We teach them how to use tasks which accept and build from this reality and we teach them to understand that some students won't get methods they're being taught first time because their brain is busy trying something else.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 17:01

That last post was a reply to Meraud. This is a reply to Janet.

Indeed - and when you go do a data analysis session with the experts from Kings they talk about the cultural dynamics, the interventions which have been used and the details of the survey and so on and you come away understanding a lot more about what has happened and what can be done but without soundbites.

In fact the area of mathematics where England has made outstanding progress is statistics. Our results are significantly ahead of most other countries because we have explictly planned to nurture students ability with statistics while other countries have stuck with tradition number, algebra and geometry curriculums. Sarah Maughen at NFER knows a lot about this and she's another highly respected analyst of the data.
(see the bottom post here:

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 12:34

“a slight decline in attainment over the 30 year period” ....“there has been little overall change in maths attainments since 1976.”

So that's okay then, is it Janet? Nothing to see here. Move on.

But hang on a mo! In 1976 only 14% of school leavers went to uni. Now it's knocking 50%. But if Maths attainment hasn't changed.... indeed has declined slightly.... then we've got a problem.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 12:44

"then we’ve got a problem"

In essence it's a threefold problem.

Firstly it's to do with counterproductive 'school improvement' activities and the behaviour of Ofsted which relentlessly batter and suffocate high quality teaching.

Secondly it's to do with the inappropriate use of narrow high stakes assessment which keep teachers focusing on the short term progress of children and prevent them focusing on deeper issues and the long term progress of students.

Thirdly it's to do with relentless inappropriate political intervention of which this draft maths curriculum is just the latest monstrosity:

What's needed is -
Inspection which adheres to the standards and principles employed by our other regulators.
The integration of formative and summative assessment.
Funding for the professional bodies to support staff development.

Meraud's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 17:14

Rebecca, thanks so much for all your thoughtful and detailed posts here and elsewhere - as a parent it's really useful to be able to learn from the kind of informed perspective which you are providing.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 22:17

I agree with you about staff development
Teachers need to take charge of this like other professions, stop expecting the government and employers to be the leaders
Actually on this issue I am sure you are a leader

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 17:31

Thank you Meraud :-)
When I've attended consultations and conferences on maths education I've been totally inspired by the high quality and expert people who present there. They always take the time to talk to anyone who will listen.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 26/06/2012 - 22:58

The government has control of the money Ben. Professional development costs money. The government spends it as it chooses. For teachers to take charge of this they need to have some say regarding where and how this money is spent and they have none.

They have campaigned for it to be filtered through the professional association but the government has instead chosen to set up its own organisations to be totally at its beck and call so that those who understand education have no choice at all.

Of course when we have decent politicians they take professional advice regarding how this money should be spent and there is consultation and transparency regarding the decisions which are made so the distinction between what happens if the money goes to a government organisation and what happens if it goes to an independent subject association is not so large as it under Gove.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 27/06/2012 - 23:34

Makes me wonder where all the money in the last decade went. What about the inset days don't they get used - that's a whole working week for CPD. You can just oragnise things on your own you don't have to have the government.

I actually think you are right to demand more training, get rid of all the useless overhead and then spend some of the savings on things you choose.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 28/06/2012 - 01:50

I'm working with the US dept. for Education on the future of collaborative CPD. Here's what they're up to next (content from an email their research team sent me).

"For the last six weeks we've been heavily involved (read: swamped) in planning a 4 week-plus online event that was just announced by the US Secretary of Education at the ISTE Conference: Connected Educator Month. It's going to be a fairly big deal, we hope, celebrated with forums, webinars, guided tours, open houses, contests, badges, and more, all with the goal increasing educator participation in professional online communities and networks as we collectively ramp up for the 2012-2013 school year, as well as providing opportunities for leading education organizations, online communities, and education technology developers to come together and move the field forward."

They've been networking with education forum managers and all sorts of other individuals who run different forms of online collaboration to get us to involve our forums and do whatever we can do.

Under the last government we were doing a lot of this in maths education in the UK but it was all mothballed when Gove came into power.

Paul's picture
Mon, 02/07/2012 - 10:01

i.e. you want politicians to do what you say. Brennan (your idiot pet MP who can't do basic arithmetic) appears to be dozy enough to take you seriously.

Paul's picture
Mon, 02/07/2012 - 10:00

"Under the last government we were doing a lot of this in maths education in the UK but it was all mothballed when Gove came into power"

Probably not helped by the last government running a structural deficit of £120bn (e.g. ex recession costs, and the banking costs)

Any buffoon can spend money.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/07/2012 - 09:53

Paul - the link below shows Kevin Brennan making his arithmetical error. He immediately noticed his mistake and corrected it by saying he was testing Gove's arithmetical skills. Although the Telegraph article noted Brennan's instant correction it chose to put the incident under the headline "Shadow Schools Minister's Maths Failure Highlights Numeracy Problems". It's a bit of a stretch to make a slip of the tongue an example of how maths standards are failing in England.

There was no mention, of course, of Mr Gove's arithmetical blunder. He said that UK PISA scores had dropped in 15 years. He then compared scores for 2000 and 2009. There are not 15 years between these dates. Following the Telegraph's example, I could say that Mr Gove's error showed that independent schools fail to teach sums properly, but I think that would be rather unfair.

Paul's picture
Tue, 03/07/2012 - 11:37

I agree (tho' the 'testing' bit was obviously a joke) and he didn't change it 'immediately' really.

Murphy's Law at work again ; it is almost a given that any post anywhere criticising someone's spelling will contain at least two spelling mistakes :)

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 03/07/2012 - 12:28

Paul - it reminded me of James Naughtie's on-air blunder when introducing John Hunt the Culture Secretary. The more someone worries about making an error, whether pronunciation or arithmetic, the more likely s/he is to make one.

Naughtie was on Loose Ends last Saturday carefully (very carefully) describing how he wrote a handwritten letter to Hunt the Culture Secretary and went to deliver it personally. When he reached the reception desk he told the receptionist he would like to see Jeremy Hunt. The receptionist answered, "Who's he?"

Paul Brown's picture
Wed, 04/07/2012 - 09:47

First time poster on here (although may do more in future). All I will say is Liz Truss has "form" when it comes to conducting embarassingly bad research concerning declining standards in mathematics in the UK.
(oddly my picture has been changed to the Guardian's Environment correspondent.. well it was a while ago...)

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 04/07/2012 - 10:44

Welcome to the network Paul - it's a shame your photo's been changed on that article - I do hope you'll be able to add a photo by signing in here.

For those who don't understand the link, Liz Truss was previously at Reform and would have been responsible for writing that paper. I think it probably explains how she came to be the Tory party expert on 6th form education without actually understanding anything about how 6th form education has changed since she was at school herself (I asked her personally about this topic last year really was clueless).

It's really difficult to understand how unfathomably weak the reports these think tanks produce are unless you've worked in the London bubble for a company which writes such reports, as I have. I only lasted 9 months because I found having to write such guff and know that it will be used as being credible due to it being marketed against my academic qualifications totally soul destroying - I simply hated it and walked away, choosing instead to temp as a secretary at director level in city firms so I could get into them as a fly on the wall to analyse their corporate cultures before returning to by an in-house analyst. What worries me is that the London bubble cherishes those who fail to become aware of how shockingly and dangerously bad their work is and despises those who are aware of the problems.

This book analyses this issue:
Of course it's also a hot topic in the press at the minute.... The city - the think tanks - all these bubble organisations which are populated by bright young things with no ability to recognise their own limitations and no respect for the rest of society - it's all part of the same thing.

Paul Brown's picture
Thu, 05/07/2012 - 09:31

although we are getting off-topic, it is possible to get an idea of just how weak they are by just reading some of them :) the standard of analysis / critical thinking is often appalling. Personally I'm amazed that some of these people (not all obviously) are taking seriously.. but then as our beloved secretary of state for education can testify, heading up a think tank that often produce nonsense reports is no barrier to a career in government

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 05/07/2012 - 09:51

Paul - it seems that all that is needed to get a hearing is to sound authorative even when what is being said is nonsense or, in Mr Gove's case, not underpinned by evidence. The standard of debate has sunk to such a level that it's only necessary to pander to the prejudices of certain sections of the media to gain wide coverage. Anyone who disagrees, even with the weight of evidence behind them, is dismissed as an "educationalist", a professor toadying to the Labour party or a bigot peddling a bankrupt, backward-looking ideology.

It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious.

chris cunningham's picture
Thu, 07/03/2013 - 00:54

When I was teachiong 'A' Level Maths in the early 1990s Bostock and Chandler, the authors of a standard 'A' Level textbook. published a new edition with an extra 10 chapters at the beginning, designed to bring students up to the earlier standard of the GCE, to enable students to deal with the 'A' Level course. Standards had fallen so much that this initial 3 months work was necessary to bring them up to scratch. Later I heard that Manchester University had had to extend its engineering courses from 3 years to 4 years, to enable the university to teach the mathematics that would earlier would have been covered at Maths 'A' Level; I was not surprised by that..

When I was a Maths PGCE student at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education in 1988, I was told by Joan, one of our lecturers, that what she wanted most for children in schools was equality. When I asked her if she meant equality of opportunity or of outcome, she said both. I pointed out that for equality of outcome it would be necessary to lower standards to a level achievable by students with the least natural ability. She agreed, and said that for that reason she wanted to lower standards.

This came from a woman in a position of influence over new teachers, and we see the results today. Isn’t it amazing how otherwise intelligent people can be blinded by ideology. This would be a useful field for psychological study.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 07/03/2013 - 08:20

I used Bostock and Chandler.

We were told we couldn't do A-level in 1 year (and futher maths in upper 6th) because we'd spend two years inventing our own projects for GCSE rather than studying content.

The fact that my school had never got more than two students through A-level in lower 6th and Further in upper 6th but in my year we got 7 through both seemed to go unnoticed by those who had previously decided it wasn't possible and therefore couldn't see what was actually going on.

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