Values and variables: Mathematics education in high-performing countries

In 2008 the Nuffield Foundation commissioned a team from King’s College, London, to conduct a review of research literature on the features of mathematics education in those countries which perform well on international tests of mathematics attainment.

Main findings
  • England’s performance in international rankings improved between 2003 and 2007. However, this does not necessarily mean an improvement in all areas of maths education. Year 9 performance in algebra is still below the international average.
  • Use of textbooks for teaching maths in English schools is relatively low. English textbooks use routine examples and are less mathematically coherent than those used in other countries.
  • Mathematics education outside school – shadow education – can contribute to high standards, but can also have an adverse effect on pupils’ wider social development.
  • There is no link between achievement and enjoyment in maths education. Pupils in countries that perform well in international surveys do not necessarily enjoy maths more than those from countries which perform less well.
  • Pupils from high-performing countries often have low confidence in maths.
  • Countries that perform well in maths have not reduced the difference in attainment between pupils from different socio-economic backgrounds.
  • There is no evidence that pupils who participate in pre-school mathematics learning are likely to perform better at maths than those who don’t.
  • Differences in maths performance between countries do not necessarily reflect differences in standards of teaching. The degree to which the questions used in international surveys match the curriculum content of a particular country is a more significant factor than the standard of teaching.

Project details



Professor Mike Askew, Dr Jeremy Hodgen, Sarmin Hossain and Nicola Bretscher, King's College London.

Funding programme


Grant amount and duration

24 January 2008 - 15 July 2009



Values and variables: Mathematics education in high-performing countries

Download report (PDF)