The best maths pupils in nations such as Hong Kong and Taiwan are up to two years ahead of English youngsters by the time they are 16

UK maths students two years behind foreign rivals

England's brightest maths students are two years behind pupils in nations such as Hong Kong and Taiwan by 16, new research shows.

It reveals that England's cleverest pupils can match their peers in leading East Asian countries at the age of 10, but then begin to fall behind.

Researchers suggested that more needs to be done to ensure the most able pupils keep pace with the highest achievers in other countries.

The study, by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, looked at the children's maths achievement in two international studies, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Ministers have raised concerns about England slipping down international rankings – coming 28th in maths in the PISA 2009 tests.

The researchers analysed TIMSS maths tests taken by nine and 10-year-olds in 2003 and by 13 and 14-year-olds in 2007, and PISA maths tests taken by 15 and 16-year-olds in 2009. The study concludes that gap between the top 10 per cent of pupils in England, and the highest achievers in East Asia widens between the ages of 10 and 16.

Study author Dr John Jerrim said: "At age 10 the highest achievers in England can roughly match the highest achievers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but by age 16, the highest achievers in England are roughly two years behind the highest achievers in those countries."

The study also found that England's most able youngsters make less progress that those of similar abilities across all the 12 other countries studied, as a whole. The other 12 countries studied were Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Slovenia, Norway, Scotland, the United States, Italy, Lithuania and Russia.

The researchers also concluded that England should focus on helping all youngsters with their maths skills at an early age.

Overall, the findings showed that the nation's pupils are already some distance behind those in East Asia in their maths achievement by age 10, but this gap does not widen between the ages of 10 and 16.

"Our results suggest that, although average maths test scores are higher in East Asian countries than in England, differences do not seem to increase between the end of primary and the end of secondary school," the report says.

"However, the gap between the highest achieving school children in East Asia and the highest achieving school children in England does seem to widen between ages 10 and 16."

The report says that English policymakers should concentrate on reforming maths in the early primary and pre-school years, as well as ensuring that the brightest youngsters are stretched in secondary school.

It says that the gap between the brightest pupils is an important issue.

"Having a pool of very highly skilled individuals is vital for technological innovation and long-run economic growth," the report says.

The researchers say that "cultural and social factors" may be behind the strong scores in East Asian countries.

"In East Asian cultures, education has historically been highly valued. This can be seen not only in teachers' high salaries, but also in the heavy investment of families in private tutoring services."

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss insisted that the report was a "damning indictment of Labour's record on education".

She said: "This government is clearing up Labour's mess. Our reforms – tougher discipline, more rigorous exams, more freedom for headteachers, a more demanding curriculum and higher quality teaching – will drive up standards so our pupils have a first-class education that matches the best in the world."

Shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said: "This report shows Michael Gove has the wrong priorities. It says we need to provide more support in basic skills at primary level, but this government has cut support for catch-up tuition in English and maths, resulting in a 40 per cent drop in the number of pupils getting this help.

"We also need to strengthen English and maths teaching at secondary level, allowing all students to carry on doing these subjects until 18. However, the government only wants to get pupils to resit their GCSEs if they don't get a C."

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