The children of cleaners in Asian cities such as Shanghai and Singapore are better at maths than the offspring of doctors and lawyers in the US and UK, according to an analysis of the global Pisa test rankings published on Tuesday.
The international league table, first released by the OECD in December, had shown 15-year-olds in Shanghai to be top in maths, while the UK languished in 26th place and the US in 36th.
But fresh scrutiny has revealed that the state-educated children of British professionals are on average a whole school year behind the children of “elementary” workers in Shanghai in maths ability, and around three months behind the same group in Singapore. The gap is even wider between US professionals and Asian cleaners or caterers.
“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,” the OECD analysts write. “Nor do they perform as well as the children in Shanghai, China and Singapore, whose parents work in manual occupations.”
Just as US educators are now striving to match the performances of their Asian peers, politicians in Westminster are seeking to learn from the example set by those countries leading the Pisa table.
Elizabeth Truss, education minister, will lead a delegation of UK experts to Shanghai schools next week to find out how the Chinese achieve such success in maths teaching. She warned that poor maths skills would hold back growth and diminish UK competitiveness.
“The reality is that unless we change our philosophy, and get better at maths, we will suffer economic decline,” Ms Truss said. “At the moment our performance in maths is weakening our skills base and threatening our productivity and growth. I am determined to change this.”
While the new curriculum for England has borrowed from East Asian models, focusing on early learning of arithmetic, times tables and long division, the minister believes there is still more the UK can do.
“Shanghai and Singapore have teaching practices and a positive philosophy that make the difference. They have a belief that diligence redeems lack of ability,” Ms Truss said. “They also have a can-do attitude to maths, which contrasts with the long-term anti-maths culture that exists here.”
Business groups are voicing concern about the effect of weak maths ability on the UK economy. A survey last year by the CBI concluded that around three in 10 employers were dissatisfied with the standard of numeracy skills among school and college leavers.
Letter in response to this report:
Get alerts on UK schools when a new story is published