Are today's pupils worse at maths than those of the 1970s?

22 June 2012

"Teenagers 'worse at maths than in 1970s', figures show"

Daily Telegraph, 21 June 2012

A major row erupted yesterday after plans to replace GCSE exams for school children with O-Level style alternatives were leaked to the Daily Mail, sparking consternation in the Liberal Democrat half of the Coalition.

Proponents of the shake-up - including the Mail itself - claim that reform is necessary to address falling standards, and this line of argument seems to be supported by claims in the Telegraph that pupils today are worse at maths than they were in the 1970s.

But can we be sure that this is really the case?


According to the Telegraph, pupils' declining attainment in maths can be charted by the increased proportion that fail to reach basic standards. It notes:

"The number of 14-year-olds with a poor grasp of maths has doubled since the mid-70s... Research shows that the proportion of pupils with the very worst skills has increased from seven to 15 per cent over the period."

The research being quoted here was produced by Dr Jeremy Hodgen, a lecturer in education and professional studies at King's College London, and was referenced by Conservative MP Liz Truss when she called for maths to be a required subject for 16-18 year olds yesterday.

Full Fact got in touch with Ms Truss's office, and they were able to provide us with the research.

From this, it is easy to trace the origin of the Telegraph's claim. Dr Hodgen points out:

"[Attainment tests] indicate a slight decline in attainment over the 30 year period. There is marked increase in the proportion of students who do not achieve Level 1 (from 7% in 1976 to 15% in 2008/9)."

We can also see from his findings that the proportion of students showing the highest aptitude has shrunk over the same period.

The research makes clear that the questions in the 1976 and 2008/9 test were identical, and so the figures are comparable.

However we have to be a little cautious with these results. As Dr Hodgen makes clear in his paper, what he is measuring is Year 9 pupils' attainment in ratio tests specifically (problems involving doubling, trebling, or multiplying by non-whole number ratios), rather than aptitude for maths more generally. This makes the Telegraph's headline difficult to substantiate on this basis alone.

Full Fact has attempted to get in touch with Dr Hodgen to ask whether we can accurately trace a decline in maths standards generally over the past 30 years, however unfortunately he wasn't available to comment today. We hope to update once we have heard back from him.

However it is interesting to note that Dr Hodgen was involved in another study back in 2009 that took a wider look at pupils' performance in algebra, ratio and decimals tests which found that "there has been little overall change in maths attainment since 1976."


While it is certainly accurate to say that pupils' ability to handle ratios has declined over the past 30 years based on Dr Hodgen's research, it is less clear that general maths ability has done likewise.

While we hope Dr Hodgen himself will be able to shed some light on this, his previously published work does seem to cast some doubt over whether the Telegraph can accurately claim that today's pupils are markedly worse at maths than those of the 1970s.

Update (27 June 2012):

Dr Hodgen has kindly been in touch to fill in some of the blanks left by the Telegraph report, and has confirmed that his research has found a similar decline in pupils' ability to handle fractions and algebra (although there was a slight increase in some aspects of pupils' understanding of decimals). His verdict is that the Telegraph's claim is fine "as a headline", which was exactly what it was.

There are of course many levels of complexity beyond this headline claim. Dr Hodgen pointed out that the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) study found a different trend. His explanation for this was that the National Numeracy Strategy moved the Maths curriculum closer to the areas tested by TIMSS, and that this study measured ability 3 months later than his study had.

So while it appears that the Telegraph headline is in fact a fair summary of Dr Hodgen's research, it does remain a live field of study.

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