Least able English students progress faster than those in East Asia from age 10 to 16

Henry Stewart's picture
That may not be the headline you read in response to the Institute of Education report on how the Maths skills of English students compare to the high performing East Asian countries. The report abstract is clear on the key finding: "Our results suggest that, although average math test scores are higher in East Asian countries, this achievement gap does not increase between ages 10 and 16." Within that, students in the top 10% did progress less well, while those in the bottom 10% progressed at a faster rate than their Asian counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. .

BBC's Today programme, and most other media coverage, emphasised the lesser progress of the most able and didn't seem to cover the greater progress of the less able. In this case the journalists were following the lead of the IoE press release. Author John Jerrim explained to me that media training had guided him to focus on one headline result and they felt the result likely to get most response was the more negative one.

Dr Jerrim had previously issued a report finding, based on the same TIMSS and PISA data sources that “there is no hard evidence that schools in England are slipping behind other countries". This criticised the government for focusing only on the PISA data, when other reports gave contradictory views. "We can't say for sure that standards have been going up - or that they have been going down," Dr Jerrim was quoted as saying.

This time the analysis covered the relative ability of 9/10 year olds reported in the 2003 TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), the ability of 13/14 year olds in the 2007 TIMSS study and the ability of 15/16 year olds in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Assessment). These would not be the same students but they would be the same age cohorts.

While England was comparable to other Western countries at each age group, it was (like the other Western countries) behind the four East Asian countries in the three studies. Authors Jerrin and Choi wanted to find out whether the East Asian lead was established at an early age or developed in secondary education. The conclusion, they argue, should affect where the DfE focuses its attention.

The Need for Early Intervention

The authors found that the gap between English students and their East Asian counterparts was established by the age of 10, (though they were ahead of Western countries such as Italy and the USA). A key conclusion therefore is that our focus needs to be well before that age:

"Reforming the secondary school system may not be the most effective way for England to ‘catch up’ with the East Asian nations in the PISA Math rankings. Rather earlier intervention, during pre-school and primary school, may be needed instead."

Report Recommendations

There are four key recommendations in the report:

  • 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

A key finding of the report was that the effect of inequality on educational achievement was greater in England than in virtually any other country. More on that to follow in a further blog.
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