Are poor quality maths textbooks letting English pupils down?

26 March 2010

Good textbooks are more important for high attainment in maths than factors such as setting or expensive IT equipment, according to a new study into international comparisons of maths attainment in schools.

The study was commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation and undertaken by academics from King’s College London.

Countries that perform consistently well in maths use carefully constructed text books as the primary means of teaching. By comparison, use of maths textbooks in English schools is relatively low, and English textbooks use routine examples and are less mathematically coherent than those in other countries. Pupils in high-performing countries are also more likely to use textbooks at home than their English counterparts.

The King’s College London researchers, led by Professor Mike Askew and Dr Jeremy Hodgen, also highlighted the importance of parental values and expectations. In high attaining East Asian countries for example, parents of all socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to pay for extra-curricular maths tutoring for their children than provide direct help with school work.

Cultural factors play an important part in teaching methods and pupil attitudes, and the researchers warn against trying to identify aspects of maths education that appear successful in other countries and importing them into the UK school system.

“We should be careful not to ‘cherry pick’ findings that fit with what we believe might be key to success, particularly as countries with very different education systems can perform equally well. For example, Singapore performs well and has a rigid and centralised assessment structure. However Finland also performs well but has an extremely flexible and decentralised approach to assessment in schools,” Professor Askew said.

The 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.

Further information

Values and variables: Mathematics education in high-performing countries - download PDF.

Find out more about the Nuffield Foundation's work in mathematics education.


For further information contact Frances Bright, Communications Manager on 020 7681 9586 (out of hours 07891 730937)

Notes to editors

1. The study was undertaken by Professor Mike Askew, Dr Jeremy Hodgen, Dr Sarmin Hossain and Nicola Bretscher from the Department of Education & Professional Studies King’s College London. It is based on data from international mathematics studies (FIMS 1963-67, SIMS 1977-1981, TIMSS 1995, 1999 & 2003, PISA 2003 & 2006), and an analysis of 550 research papers relating to mathematics education. A full list of references is available from the King's College London website.

2. The study was commissioned by Nuffield Foundation as part of its review of mathematics teaching and learning. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. We fund research and innovation in education and social policy, primarily in the UK but also in Europe and Africa. We also work to build capacity in education, science and social science research.

3. King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (Times Higher Education 2009) and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has nearly 23,000 students (of whom more than 8,600 are graduate students) from nearly 140 countries, and some 5,500 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate. More information is available at