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Chris McGovern: Ulster primaries best in Europe for maths (but then they have grammars)


The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) has just published its latest “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMMS). It covers 60 countries and focuses on performance in mathematics and in science at ages 9 to 10 (primary) and at ages 13-14 (secondary). Final year secondary pupils from 9 countries, but not from the UK, are also assessed.

So, how did England and Northern Ireland, the UK countries that participate in the survey, get on? Very well, indeed, according to The Times:

‘Pupils hit new heights in global maths tables”

Not so great for England, though, if you read the BBC website:

“England’s performance has not advanced since tests four years ago.”

But, excellent news for primary school pupils in Northern Ireland:

“Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests”

Strangely, the Beeb chose not to mention that these Northern Irish 10 year-olds are ‘unfairly’advantaged because they have to prepare for a grammar school system at secondary level. This means that aspirations have to be somewhat higher than if your next step is to the local ‘bog standard’ comp.

The Daily Mail provided a rather different view of Britain’s performance:

“Now Britain trails Kazakhstan in the global maths league: pupils found to be making ‘little progress’ in catching up with leading nations”

What are we to make of these different perspectives? All very confusing! And matters could be about to become even more confusing. This week, the OECD will publish the latest three-yearly results from its authoritative “Programme for International Assessment” – the well-known PISA tests. It is possible, even likely, that it will paint a different picture of performance for many countries around the world, while confirming the predominant position of the Asia-Pacific superstars.

Because they cover literacy, in addition to mathematics and science, the PISA results have always been more wide ranging than those of TIMMS. The style of questioning is different, too. PISA assessment is more focused on the practical application of knowledge in the ‘real world’ – employment skills. The TIMMS assessment concentrates rather more on formal knowledge. Both are important, of course.

PISA tests are, also, different in that they only assess older pupils (15 year-olds).

The latest PISA tests will also cover the ability to work in teams for the purpose of problem solving. This is a new departure for international pupil assessment. Our educational establishment, the ‘Blob’, is fond of telling us that the big downside of education in the Asia-Pacific region is the way it stultifies and suppresses creativity and entrepreneurialism. We are about to find out the truth of this claim.

We can be fairly sure that the current premier league of educational high performers in literacy, mathematics and science, from the Asia-Pacific, is not going to change much on the OECD PISA tests. It is worth noting that more countries take part in the PISA assessment. A number of these were ahead of Britain last time round on the PISA tests but were not part of the TIMMS assessment. In mathematics, for example, Shanghai, Macau, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Estonia and Austria were all ahead of us but are not part of the TIMMS study.

The latest TIMMS results show that, for all the energy and reforming zeal of Michael Gove, and for all the self-congratulation emanating from the ‘Blob’, we have, more or less, stood still in terms of pupil attainment since the last round of TIMMS tests in 2011. Primary school pupils in Northern Ireland are something of a shining light, though, thanks to its grammar school system raising the aspirations of primary school teachers.

On the TIMMS tests we are, at least, performing better than much of the sclerotic EU but we are all miles behind the Asia-Pacific. This week’s PISA results will give us a much clearer and more comprehensive indication of how the educational land lies.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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