Don’t panic

The publication of the TIMMS data on mathematics and science outcomes at Years 5 & 9 across a wide range of countries heralds the start of a period of data announcements that will include OECD comparative data and the Chief inspectors annual report; in thelatter case, the last by the present Inspector. As I am away next week – thoroughly bad timing, but needs must – my comments on these reports will have to wait for a while. However, the TIMMS national report for England can be found at

Slow progress, with better results from the primary sector than the secondary sector might be one interpretation. Another, summed up in the findings is that:

  • Forty-six per cent of year 9 pupils in England pupils strongly valued maths: more than their peers in the five highest-performing countries.
  • Half (50%) of year 5 pupils in England very much liked learning maths compared to only 14 per cent of year 9s. In both years 5 and 9, three of the highest-performing countries – Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – had smaller proportions of pupils who liked learning maths than in England.
  • In both years 5 and 9 in England, and across all countries, on average, there is an association between all attitudinal factors and average achievement. For example, the more pupils feel confident in their maths ability; the higher their average achievement.

The message about the value of mathematics seems to now being heard and accepted in society, at least by young people. The next question is whether squeezing the last ounce of learning out of teenagers makes the process less fun? If so, does that have long-term implications for attitudes to learning, especially where the results are the outcome of longer time at school learning the subject and more tutoring hours outside of school? Is a balanced curriculum better than a narrow one even if results in some subjects are less than might have been achieved? That is not to recommend easing up on learning maths, but to place include it is a broader curriculum.

Whether the current level of success will continue in the next survey is open to question especially as:

Head teachers in England were more likely to report teacher recruitment difficulties and/or finding it hard to fill vacancies than in most other comparator group countries. About half of year 9 pupils were taught in schools with shortages in both subjects, while two-thirds (67%) of head teachers found their year 9 science vacancies somewhat or very hard to fill.

However, schools in England, despite media reports to the contrary are no longer the blackboard jungles they once were. The report states that the findings are:

The vast majority of pupils in England were taught in schools where head teachers reported hardly any problems with school discipline and which teachers reported to be safe and orderly. This compared relatively favourably against most other TIMSS countries. However, six per cent of year 9 pupils attended schools which teachers reported to be less than safe and orderly.

There is a lot more fascinating data in the Report, so it’s good to know that data skills are one we seem to do well. Not  a soft skill, but a valuable hard one.





4 thoughts on “Don’t panic

  1. Good to see TIMSS being given more attention than it normally is. The 2007 results, for example, which showed England’s 10 and 14 year-olds at the top of the European league for maths and science, were completely ignored by the DfE in 2010. Michael Gove was too busy pushing the myth that the UK had plummeted down league tables in ten years. The 2007 TIMSS results didn’t fit that scenario.

    Gove’s misleading conclusion, repeated incessantly by politicians and most of the media, was the result of comparing the 2009 PISA results for the UK with those from 2000. But the OECD, which administers PISA, said the 2000 results for the UK were faulty and should not be used for comparison.

    Education policy in England was supposed to be ‘evidence based’. But evidence apparently includes deceptive comparisons and ignoring facts which don’t support politicians’ ideas.

    • Janet,

      Thanks. I agree, hence my headline. I wonder about the relative sample sizes between small city states with largely homogeneous populations and much larger multi-cultural countries in terms of whether that has an effect upon the structure of the data collection? I guess I need to do a bit more thinking about sample sizes.


      • The same applies to PISA. Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Chinese Macao are all very small jurisdictions. Shanghai is also relatively small and 25% of the cohort was missing from PISA 2012. That should have been enough to discount the findings. Yet Shanghai is often described as ‘China’ and its ‘Chinese’ methods promoted as something we should emulate (without the much small class-contact time, of course).

      • Janet,

        Very much my point too. We will see what PISA brings. That doesn’t make any allowance as far as I know as to complexity of the language. as we know, English is both dynamic and complex as the sentence The deer was eating a Nice biscuit while passing through Reading on the way to meet the seer in Slough.


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