When the report on the 2015 International Trends in Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) was launched late last year, the media’s focus was on how England had performed relative to other countries in the tests. The headline result is that England did reasonably well overall, performing significantly above the international mean in maths and science in both years 5 and 9, which places us in the second highest performing group of countries overall. [A blog summarising England’s performance is available here].
What I want to focus on here though is how pupil attitudes to maths and science have changed over the past 20 years. One finding is that enjoyment and confidence in maths declined among Year 9 pupils in England between 1995 and 2015, even as our attainment increased. This apparent paradox has been seen across a number of countries participating in TIMSS, perhaps indicating that a focus on increasing pupil confidence and engagement in subjects may be misguided.
Pupil attitudes to maths and science in England
Overall, pupil attitudes are more positive in Year 5 (age 9-10) than Year 9 (age 13-14). For example, in Year 5, four out of five pupils in England (80%) are either confident or very confident in maths, but this drops to 65% in Year 9.
In addition, by Year 9 pupils are more likely to like learning science than maths. Four out of five Year 5 pupils in England say that they like or very much like learning maths (82%) and science (83%). By Year 9, three quarters like learning science (75%) but only just over half (52%) like maths.
How does England compare with other countries?
These results compare reasonably well with other countries at Year 5, although less so at Year 9.
Chart 1, below, shows that the proportion of Year 5 pupils in England who say that their maths teaching is very engaging (73%) is above the international mean (68%), but at Year 9 England (38%) falls below the international mean (43%). In science, the proportion of pupils in England who perceive teaching to be very engaging is similar to the international mean (70% compared to 69%), but at Year 9 England is below the international mean (38% compared to 47%).
Chart 2, below, shows that the proportion of Year 5 pupils in England who very much like learning maths (50%) is just above the international mean (46%), but in Year 9 this proportion (14%) is notably lower than the international mean (22%). The proportions of Years 5 and 9 pupils in England who very much like learning science are below the international mean (49% compared to 56%, and 31% compared to 37% respectively).
The proportion of Year 5 pupils in England who are very confident in maths (37%) is above the international mean (32%), but the opposite is true for science (33% compared to 40%). At Year 9 the proportions are similar to the international mean in both subjects.
How have attitudes changed over time?
England has participated in TIMSS every four years since 1995, giving us 20 years of data to review changes over time. A recent report published by the
International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) analyses responses to two individual questions relating to pupils’ enjoyment and confidence in maths for all countries that have participated in TIMSS over the same period.
This analysis points to some interesting trends – over the past 20 years enjoyment and confidence in maths have improved or remained the same in England at Year 5, but have declined at Year 9. However, it is important to note that England’s scores are consistently ‘better’ than the international average:
- The proportion of Year 5 pupils in England who disagreed with the statement ‘I enjoy learning mathematics’ decreased slightly between 1995 and 2015 (from 16% to 12%). This leaves England below the international average for dissatisfaction in maths at this level in 2015 (17%) (which is a good thing!).
- The proportion of Year 9 pupils in England who disagreed with the above statement increased from 20% to 31% over the same period, but this is still lower than the international average level of dissatisfaction in 2015 (36%).
- The proportion of Year 5 pupils in England who disagreed with the statement ‘I usually do well in mathematics’ remained consistent (11%) between 1995 and 2015, leaving England below the international average in 2015 (15%).
- The proportion of Year 9 pupils in England who disagreed with the above statement increased from 7% in 1995 to 18% in 2015, but this still left England well below the international average in 2015 (33%).
Are pupil attitudes associated with performance?
Whether or not pupils find teaching engaging, whether they feel confident in and like a subject, and the extent to which they value that subject are all correlated with pupil performance. In both years 5 and 9 in England, and across all countries, on average, there is an association between all attitudinal factors and average achievement in maths and science. So, for example, the more a pupil feels confident in their maths ability, the higher their average achievement. Of the four areas assessed, confidence is the one that correlates most strongly with performance.
But… there is an interesting paradox within these broad findings that bears further exploration. Even as enjoyment and confidence in maths declined between 1995 and 2015 among Year 9 pupils in England, attainment actually increased (from 498 to 515 points). This pattern is the same across many TIMSS countries, with the IEA report indicating that, overall, the association is statistically significant. As a result, it concludes:
High achieving countries tend to report large percentages of students who do not enjoy learning mathematics and do not believe they usually do well in the subject. Conversely, students in low achieving nations are more likely to say they enjoy learning mathematics and to express confidence in their mathematics performance. The paradoxes have persisted over the TIMSS 20 year history. (Mullis, Martin and Loveless, IEA, 2016: 80)
The IEA report explores some of the possible reasons for this paradox, including differences in culture and the ‘frog pond effect’ (we judge ourselves more harshly if we are surrounded by higher performing colleagues). Certainly there does appear to be a strong cultural element in the highest performing East Asian countries, where students are less likely to say they enjoy or feel confident in these subjects.
Interestingly though, the IEA report does not explore the more straightforward possibility that as teaching becomes more demanding and focussed on exam scores, enjoyment goes down but attainment goes up. Whatever the reasons, the analysis provides an important caveat to any assumption that engagement and confidence are the key to high performance in formal assessments such as TIMSS.
Of course, whether we actually want a school system in which learning is not enjoyable and student confidence is fragile, but results are high, is another matter. Arguably we don’t yet know enough about how such attitudinal factors impact on pupils’ long term engagement (for example in terms of university subject and career choices) to be able to gauge their importance.
Toby Greany is Professor of Leadership and Innovation, UCL IOE
 In TIMSS, Year 5 and Year 9 pupils complete a background questionnaire, which asks their views on a range of areas. As part of this, around 10 questions are asked in relation to each of three areas – engagement, confidence and liking of each subject – and responses are then aggregated up to give an overall score for each area. Year 9 pupils are also asked a range of questions about how much they value each subject.
 In TIMSS 1995 pupils were sampled from Years 4 and 5, meaning that the results are not directly comparable.