Coffee House

Our brightest children are falling behind their peers in other countries

22 February 2013

Today’s jobs market is highly competitive and globalised. It is no longer enough simply to see if we are doing better than we did last year, or the year before, or 10 years ago.

Far better to judge how we are doing against other countries – for our young people will be fighting for jobs against their peers from Singapore and China, from Canada and the US, from Sweden and Slovenia.That is why I such set stock by international league tables, and of analysis of them. We see how we compare against others – and we discover who we must learn from.

So it is enormously worrying when respected researchers say that our brightest pupils, on a par with their peers in the world-leading education systems of the Far East at age 10, have fallen two years behind them by age 16. And not only that – they make less progress in that time than all the countries that the researchers studied: Scotland, Australia, Italy, USA, Norway, Lithuania, Russia and Slovenia.


This is a damning indictment of Labour’s record, based as it is on data from between 2003 and 2009. This Government is clearing up the mess they created. 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.

The researchers said we need to concentrate on one area in particular: reforming mathematics education. We have just published for consultation new programmes of study designed to restore much-needed rigour to the curriculum – from the start of primary school right through to GCSE level.

These curricula will give all children the basics they need to move on to more advanced topics, and they will stretch the brightest. In primary school there will be a renewed focus on arithmetic; subtraction, addition, multiplication and division – this is where the high-performing countries generally do well. Fluency in arithmetic provides a solid basis for later study in areas from algebra to statistics. Children will be expected to understand and practice written methods, not simply reach for calculators, which will be banned from tests for 11-year-olds. In secondary school, students perform relatively worse in algebra and geometry compared to the top performers. So again, these elements will be at the core of the secondary curriculum

Of course, these reforms will take time – there is much to fix. But when a country learns the lessons of international evidence and reforms accordingly, standards do rise.

Liz Truss is Education Minister.

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  • Eliyahu Ben Abraham

    Not surprising that some British children may have trouble with their language when even Madam Liz Truss, Education Minister, seems to have made at least three mistakes of grammar and style in her opinion piece. First, look at this sentence in the second paragraph: “That is why I SUCH SET stock BY international league tables, and OF analysis of them.” The phrase ought to be “set such stock by,” not as shown. This is a mistake of word order or syntax. Further, it seems to me that the “of” that I have captalized ought to be BY, since “analysis” is the prepositional object of “set such stock.” Also, a writer generally ought to keep his prepositions consistent for the sake of better style. Hence, in one sentence we find two mistakes.
    Second, in the next sentence in the same paragraph, we see : “. . . we discover WHO we must learn from. ” It seems to me that since the WHO is the object of the preposition FROM, that the WHO shouldbe WHOM.
    A total of three errors in the same paragraph. I would send Madam Truss back to school. The Best and the Brightest.

  • Daniel Maris

    Well, let’s face it, if our children are truly “fighting” against Chinese children brought up by Tiger Mothers, prepared to accept much lower wages and with no right to even belong to a free trade union then they are going to lose.

    But you should choose your “fights”.

    What amazes me is the inability of low wattage thinkers like Truss to understand that the Chinese are never going to play fairly with us (why should they after the way we treated them in the 19th century?). Just a reminder: China’s People’s Liberation Army, we have now learned, operates a dedicated hacking unit in Shanghai that hacks thousands of military and commercial sites in the West.

    It is suicidal to trade with these people.

    We should be looking to develop our own path to assured economic prosperity, focussed on the real economy and not the make-believe world of banks.

    • Eliyahu Ben Abraham

      Daniel, I am glad that you understand why the Chinese might want to resent the British after those nasty 19th century British tricks like the Opium Wars and such. By the same logic, you & other Brits ought to be able to understand how Jews might resent Arabs and other Muslims after more than a thousand years of Arab & Muslim oppression of Jews in the enforced lowly status of dhimmis. But expecting logic from many of the rabid Judeophobes in the UK may be in vain.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Ah, telemachean egalitarianism. All will be equal in mediocrity and stupidity. As Mrs Thatcher once said, with a wonderful hand gesture, it is bringing people down to the lowest common denominator rather than raising them high in aspiration.

    None of the idiotic Gramsci marchers and Marxist cultural revolutionaries who hide beneath the Labour party’s feminist skirts has a clue. None of them look to China and wonder why, once the communists embraced capitalism, people became wealthier and cleverer. No, they are still in a world of virtually imposed Mao suits and envy.

  • John McClane

    Where’s telemachus on this?

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      I believe that team Telemachus is away and attending a symposium for congenital idiots who have lost their villages but based on past performance, I will try to summarise their ‘views’ as incoherently as possible:
      Pay the teachers more and ignore revanchist, revisionist calls for reform, Gove doesn’t get it. Leave them free to mould young minds to produce an egalitarian society. In 2015 the Charismatic one will make everything right by pump priming for growth etc etc etc .
      That probably covers it but if I have missed anything of note please accept my apologies.

      • Colonel Mustard

        The similarity is spine tingling :-)

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          Sorry about that Colonel it must have given you a bit of a fright. I had to have a lie down afterwards and clear my head because Telebollux is not healthy even in jest.

  • John McClane

    The real problem is the SATs. Key stage 2 or Key stage 3. I never took any teacher seriously when they started boasting in parents’ evenings and elsewhere about having scored level 7 at KS3. Level 7 is basically write your name without a spelling mistake. Gove should be saying something about international comparability, not Liz Truss (who’s she?).

  • Smithersjones2013

    [Yawn] Not another Government fluff piece blaming Labour for all our ills claiming to have done something yet not having the slightest tangible evidence that what they have done has had the slightest impact (or that Labour won’t undo it all when this disastrous government inevitably crash at the ballot box in 2015).

    Meanwhile elsewhere in between their profligate global adventures (reminiscent of Blair?) Cameron and Osborne and co whitewash public sector outrages (Mid-staffs NHS), continue to renege on their electoral promises and denounce their supposed conservative roots (the disgraceful care proposals and the abandoning of the inheritence tax pledge) and all the while the Prime Minister persists in his abuse of natural conservative voters.

    Education may be the most promising area of this government thanks to Gove but it is no recompense for the damage that Cameron is wreaking on our nation and his party. The Tories are a broken trashed brand no longer fit for purpose. UKIP (for what they are worth) are the future of conservatism in this country.,

  • 2trueblue

    The standards were allowed to fall to such a low level that the children are not the only ones who have been allowed to get through with low standards. Teachers today have such a basic grasp of grammar that we do not have many who are up to the task of teaching subjects across the board, that is not easily fixed.

  • MichtyMe

    The international league tables that Truss sets stock by, aren’t they the ones that have Finland up top, with it’s uniform state directed system, no choice, no private, comprehensive, starting formal education at seven.

  • Tom Tom

    DISCIPLINE in Schools is superior in countries with superior results. Education has no real respect in England and “academic” is an insult rather than a term of respect. England has Industrial Schools to produce low-skilled operatives and Public Schools to produce Bankers, Lawyers, Medics, and Cabinet Ministers. The Norman Overlords have their Subjects under control

    • Colonel Mustard

      Education in England has been School for Socialists for decades. That is why they hate Gove.

      • Tom Tom

        It would be best to abolish the Education Ministry in Whitehall. It has done all the damage since 1945. It is amazing that almost 96% Secretaries of State for Education have been educated PRIVATELY and not in the State Sector. No wonder it is such a mess

  • jazz606

    What is required is some sort of escape from the State ‘education’ system which doesn’t cost and arm and a leg.

    • Archimedes

      You mean free schools?

      • jazz606


        How successful is the Free School initiative, have the public sector managed to torpedo it yet ?

    • Tom Tom

      Selection would change it dramatically

  • Michael990

    Education is the one bright spot where this government seems to be beginning to make a difference. With several lost generations already, there is a lot to do to catch up and one hopes that the strategies put in place stay the course. Reforming education is THE most important thing to do for our country’s future. The jury at the recent Pryce trial is a fine demonstration of the sad state of the average citizen’s intellectual competence. Unless it was carefully chosen to be so…

  • rupertstubbs

    The problem for many schools is that Maths is a great divider – the gap in attainment between those who “get it” and those who don’t is far wider than in pretty much any other subject. Even within the group of those who get it, there can still be a large spread in ability. Unless schools are able to provide specialist teaching for the top ones, they will just have to sit and be bored in class.

    Really, Maths should be divided into two separate subjects – Practical Maths and Theoretical Maths. Practical Maths should focus on crucial life knowledge like arithmetics, estimation, and basic probability, risk and financial understanding. Theoretical Maths can then be a specialist subject for those who can advance at a far faster speed, mixing different year groups on ability rather than just mere age.

    • Tom Tom

      Do you mean Pure Maths and Applied Maths ? they used to be A-Level Subjects. Or do you mean “Sums & Arithmetic” and “Maths” ?

      • rupertstubbs

        A bit like that – but applied much earlier. Pupils who have no interest or facility with maths still need to understand how to add up, divide – and understand statistics, risk and financial calculations. Make Practical Maths utterly pragmatic and real-life, rather than the all-things-to-all-men it is at the moment.

        • Ian Walker

          You probably need three streams: “Numeracy” for the day-to-day practical maths, “Applied Maths” for the calculus and algebra required to support science, engineering, economics, psychology etc, and then “Pure Maths” for those who want to study maths for its own sake.

    • Harold Angryperson

      I think that was the idea behind the old “Pure” and “Applied” Mathematics A-Levels.

    • John McClane

      Maths, Music & Languages. You have to be precise in those subjects. All the rest is touchy-feely humanities. Including Science since it now includes AGW.

    • Helen Harvey

      But that’s exactly how it was taught in the 1980’s; there was commercial maths for those able but less able and the maths i took which included calculus at ‘o’ level.

  • Harold Angryperson

    But we also need to make sure that our education system produces people qualified for what we need. Currently the system fails to produce enough tradesmen (plumbers etc), engineers, nurses or IT specialists – shortages in these areas is why in a recession there is still massive immigration. Meanwhile every year there is a flood of graduates with useless degrees from second-rate “Universities”, up to their eyeballs in debt and unable to find work.

    For starters, how about making degrees in subject areas where there is a shortage attract a full grant, like in the old days? That might encourage more applications in these fields.

    • Tom Tom

      Forget the Grant it is the Jobs. How many Engineering and Maths graduates head for The City since Engineering pays so badly

    • John McClane

      We had it with the 1944 Education Act. Grammar schools, grammar technical schools, secondary modern schools. But never fully implemented.

      • Tom Tom


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