Middle-class British pupils are worse at maths than children of Shanghai cleaners

The children of cleaners and catering assistants in some Asian countries are better at maths than those of doctors and lawyers in Britain, research reveals.

Youngsters from deprived backgrounds in Shanghai were the equivalent of a year of school ahead of UK children from wealthy homes with well-educated parents.

The advantage in Singapore was around three months.

When the most deprived children from the UK and Shanghai were compared, British children were nearly three years behind.

The gap rose to five years if deprived British pupils were compared with children from well-off homes in China’s largest city.

The gulf in academic attainment between the two regions was revealed in data within a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released in December. It had already shown that British teenagers have dropped out of the top 20 rankings in maths, science and reading for the first time.

The new analysis, based on maths tests taken by more than half a million 15-year-olds, suggests some countries are better at helping their children succeed at school, regardless of background.

The report concludes: ‘In the United States and the United Kingdom, where professionals are among the highest-paid in the world, students whose parents work as professionals do not perform as well in mathematics as children of professionals in other countries.


‘Nor do they perform as well as the children in Shanghai, China, and Singapore, whose parents work in manual occupations.’

The success of pupils in emerging economies has led other nations to look at their education systems.

Education minister Liz Truss is travelling to China next week to find out how maths is taught there.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has already announced changes to improve maths in England, including a focus on core knowledge, more mental arithmetic and tougher exams.

Anyone aged 16 to 18 who does not have a GCSE in the subject with a C grade or higher is also expected to continue studying it under new rules.

Miss Truss said: ‘Shanghai is the top-performing part of the world for maths – their children are streets ahead.

‘Shanghai and Singapore have teaching practices and a positive philosophy that make the difference. They have a belief that diligence redeems lack of ability.

‘Our new curriculum has borrowed from theirs because we know it works – early learning of key arithmetic and a focus on times tables and long division, for example.

‘The reality is that, unless we change our philosophy and get better at maths, we will suffer economic decline.’

Research has shown children with high maths scores at age 10 earn seven per cent more when they are 30 than those who struggle with the subject, a difference of tens of thousands of pounds over their working life.

Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD, said: ‘If school systems want all of their students to succeed, they should give the children of factory workers and cleaners the same education opportunities that the children of doctors and lawyers enjoy.’


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