Maths data 15 years out of date

August 23, 1996

David Reynolds and Shaun Farrell, authors of the recent OFSTED report Worlds Apart? (THES, August 9), are quoted as saying that "There is nothing to support those who would criticise maths and science standards among first-year university students". This statement appears to be based on data collected in 1981 which showed that English 17 year-olds came second in a mathematics league table after Japan.

Such data are years out of date. Moreover, the table quoted compared the attainments of the small percentage of students in England who studied mathematics at age 17 (and, incidentally, only two or three other subjects) with the larger percentages of the age cohort who studied mathematics in other countries (along with a far wider range of other subjects). It ignores the facts that if the marks of the top 1 per cent or 5 per cent of the age cohort in each country were compared, then England sank to its usual middle-of-the-table position.

Unfortunately, England did not participate at 17-plus level in the recent international study and so we have no up-to-date data.

GEOFFREY HOWSON The School Mathematics Project University of Southampton

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