England is neglecting its brightest children, leaving them lagging far behind youngsters overseas, suggests a new report commissioned by the Sutton Trust.
The report examined the proportions of pupils achieving the highest levels in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests. The PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) compare the performance of pupils in different countries in subjects such as reading and maths.
It found that just 1.7% of England's 15-year-olds reach the highest Level 6 in maths, where as in Switzerland and Korea 7.8% of pupils reach this level.
Overall England ranked 26th out of the 34 OECD countries in terms of the proportion of pupils reaching the top level in maths, behind other nations like Slovenia (3.9%), France (3.3%) and the Czech Republic (3.2%) which scored the OECD average.
The study found that most of the pupils who are considered to be “high performing" attend private or grammar schools, rather than being state educated.
It also stressed that comparing the maths results of 18-year-olds would reveal even more worrying figures as 90% of English pupils drop the subject after GCSEs. In many other countries maths is compulsory up to the age of 18.
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “These are shocking findings that raise profound concerns about how well we support our most academically able pupils, from non-privileged backgrounds. Excellence in maths is crucial in so many areas such as science, engineering, IT, economics and finance. These figures show that few bright non-privileged students reach their academic potential - which is unfair and a tragedy for them and the country as a whole.”
The report suggests 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.
The report recommends that bright children should be identified at the end of primary schools, with their achievements and progress tracked from then on. It also calls for tougher exam questions which would allow bright students to stretch themselves and more support for under-privileged youngsters.
Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said: “National Numeracy strongly welcomes this report highlighting the importance of unlocking highly able pupils' mathematical potential.
“It is vital to raise aspiration for all pupils and to challenge the all-too-common 'I can't do maths' attitude, which easily becomes self-perpetuating even for the highly able.”
Education secretary Michael Gove added: “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.”