Reforms to the early stages of maths education are required to aid secondary teachers in getting the best out of their ablest pupils later on, a new report has advocated.
Dr John Jerrim and Dr Alvaro Choi from the Institute of Education analysed results of Trends in Mathematics and Science Study tests taken by nine and ten-year-olds in 2003 and 13 and 14-year-olds in 2007.
They also looked at Programme for International Student Assessment tests taken by pupils aged 15 and 16 in 2009.
Following this, they compared English pupils' performance in maths with that of children from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as with test results from Scotland, Australia, Italy, USA, Norway, Lithuania, Russia and Slovenia.
The researchers found that while the top ten per cent of English pupils for maths almost matched their Taiwan and Hong Kong counterparts at the age of ten, by the time they reached 16 they had fallen almost two years behind them.
Moreover, while overall secondary school level maths performance was broadly in line with that of the other countries studied, the ablest children made less progress in maths at secondary school than their peers from all of the other education systems considered.
Dr Jerrim argued, however, that this did not mean reform was solely required at secondary level, given that pupils are on average well behind their East Asian counterparts by the age of ten.
He and Dr Choi instead advised policymakers to reform maths education in the early primary and pre-school years and to invest more in the skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Furthermore, the researchers said secondary school maths needed to be reformed to stretch the ablest performers, partly though initiatives like gifted and talented schemes, although they warned against dividing more children into ability groups from an early age.
Commenting on the report, education minister Elizabeth Truss described it as a "damning indictment" of the previous Labour government's record on education.
She highlighted steps the current government is taking to drive up educational standards, such as tougher exams and a more demanding curriculum.
However, shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said the report's findings showed that the government had gotten its priorities wrong and that it should do more to help primary school teachers educate their pupils in basic maths skills.
Posted by Charlotte Michaels