Can we still make the grade in maths?

Published date: 05 December 2013 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


GLOBALLY, Wales is not top of the class when it comes to maths.

In fact, according to the latest PISA results (Programme for International Student Assessment), the land of our fathers is lagging behind England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The results, released this week, are not broken down by county, but it is worth noting last year’s GCSE results in Flintshire were impressive, with more than 99 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSE grades from A* to G and more than 95 per cent in Wrexham doing the same.

The PISA tests are not the same as GCSE exams. Instead they concentrate on maths, reading and science, with two-hour papers scored according to a point system.

Just over 500,000 pupils aged 15 and 16 were tested in 65 countries – with the countries themselves being tested, not the individual pupils.

Wales has not fared well and has even dropped a few points from 2009 to 2012.

National Union of Teachers secretary David Evans said: “It is disappointing... but it is also not unexpected. This year’s results focused on mathematics, which is traditionally not the strongest subject for Wales.

“We should clearly listen to what PISA is telling us and take on board some of those messages.”

Mr Evans added that having an educational revolution every three years based on one set of results gleaned from a relatively small sample of pupils was not sustainable.

Huw Lewis, education and skills minister for the Welsh Government, said there were no quick fixes, but that ambitious reforms in Wales’ schools system were already taking place.

The Welsh system, like that of the UK, is continually in flux, with new goals and changing syllabuses, and the question of what we can do to improve our maths scores is a vexing one.

All I know for certain is that we seem to constantly subject our children to tests. So I wondered how the PISA test would fare when some of the questions were undertaken by a very different set of pupils whose education and experience spanned different decades.

Would those who have already passed through the education system – studying O-levels, going on to further education or even dropping out – fare differently?

I asked 10 adult colleagues to complete a sample of six PISA test maths questions, each one representing the six levels that school children are rated at.

About 92 per cent of school children in the UK scored level one (the simplest level) or higher, while only three per cent of British pupils hit the top end at level six. In Shanghai 31 per cent of yuongsters tested made the top grade.

Generously, I gave my guinea pigs 10 minutes to complete the six questions.
The results were intriguing.

John Gaulton, 35, of Connah’s Quay, works in production, designing the visuals for the Leader. He was 15 in 1993, eight years after the introduction of GCSEs.

He reached PISA level five, achieved by just 12 per cent of UK 15 and 16-year-olds.
He said: “I did my GCSEs, but I was awful at maths. I think I did pretty well considering I last studied it 20 years ago. I had to have a tutor to make sure I passed.

“Looking at the homework kids bring home now – what they learn is more complex than what I learned back then.”

John Leach, of Chester, works in accounts. He would have been 15 in 1977, when O-levels were still in full swing.

Now 51, he reached PISA level four, on par with 30 per cent of British pupils.

“I got the last two wrong,” he said, a bit ruefully, “but I was trying to be a good boy and do the workings in my head rather than writing them down.

“I actually think a lot of what was confusing about the PISA test was in how they explained the questions. They were split up and included pictures. It makes more sense looking back over it, but you have to get used to it. That is down to the method of teaching.

“If a pupil is presented with a style of question they aren’t familiar with then they will panic, even if the maths at the heart of it is simple.

“I have a 13-year-old at home and the homework she brings home now – you just think ‘what is all this’?”

Adele Walker, 27, of Blacon, Chester, who works in advertising, dropped out of school after achieving one GCSE – not in maths.

She got the level four question wrong, but was the first to work out the more complicated level six question, putting her potentially on par with the most maths-savvy three per cent of UK 15-year-olds.

She said: “I know how I got that question wrong now, looking back. I never got my GCSEs, but I like things like this. Maths was the one thing I did enjoy. I do use maths every day to work out percentages and things.

“I never went to college, I never went to university, but at least I’m smarter than some 15-year-olds!”

Simon Whitley, 41, of Gwernaffield, had a background in maths with a B at GCSE and a taster of an old maths AS level, although he dropped that when he found out it involved statistics.

“We IT people are usually quite sure of ourselves,” he joked – but in the end he came out with the same results as Adele.

“I think I would have been comfortable doing this test when I was 15. It’s all real-world maths, which is easier than the ridiculous stuff I studied. I was quite glad there weren’t any quadratic equations in there.”

I made it to level five but failed on the last hurdle. Unsurprisingly, humanities A-levels, journalism qualifications and an arts PhD did not give me a maths edge over the brightest teens in Britain, or the number-crunching children of Shanghai.

Of the other five participants, only one managed to get all six questions right (another accountant), but most managed to match or exceed 70 per cent of UK school pupils.

This is certainly not a scientific test, or an accurate comparison of UK education in the 70s, 80s, 90s and now.

But it does suggest that, for all the nostalgia aimed at old-style schooling, O-levels, GCSEs and life experience can still add up. 

Whether Wales can ever catch up with Shanghai is something only the future can reveal.

To try the sample PISA test visit:

For more news from across the region visit

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