England ranks 26th out of 34 OECD countries

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England’s teenagers are just over half as likely to reach the highest levels in maths in international tests as students from other developed nations finds a major review of the support for highly able children.

Just 1.7 per cent of English 15-year-olds achieved the highest mark – compared with 7.8 per cent in Switzerland, the best-performing European country, and 26.6 per cent in Shanghai, China.

But the report, by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, says that on a world scale, the picture is even more concerning - 26.6% achieved the highest level in Shanghai and 15.6% in Singapore.   Maths in almost all countries is compulsory to the age of 18 except in England where almost 90% of students drop Maths after GCSE.  So comparisons at the age of 18 would look far worse than the already worryingly poor performance at 15.

The report argues that England’s poor international performance is the result of successive failures of policies and programmes to do enough to stretch the most able children.
 
It advocates that highly able children should be identified in tests at the end of primary school, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables. National tests meanwhile should include more difficult questions, so that there is ample opportunity for the highly able to show what they can do.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University, who compiled the figures, warned that provision in  England for able pupils was ‘a mess’ and urged an overhaul including the revival  of some academic selection, but at 14 instead of 11.

He said that Labour’s drive to encourage schools to identify bright pupils had been so ‘confusing’ that some heads gave 100 per cent of children the label and others none.

He said: "In some cases, “gifted and talented” appears to have been more of a rationing device for popular trips than a means of high-level education.

"In our view the focus should be on those with the potential for excellence in the major school subjects. The key issue is that secondary schools should be held to account for the progress of the highly able.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said the latest results showed that most able children had been failed by a ‘hotch-potch of abandoned initiatives and unclear priorities’.

"These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds," he said.

Professor Smithers called for the top 5 or 10 per cent of pupils at age 11 to be tracked through school and for high schools to be held accountable for their progress.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "This report underlines why the Government is determined to act decisively to restore academic rigour to schools and ensure our exams match the world’s best.

‘Until we do this, our young people will continue to pay the price for the previous Labour government’s decision that lower standards were a price worth paying for higher grades."

School Leadership Today
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