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Tackling low achievement in mathematics and science still a challenge in Europe

Commission Européenne - IP/11/1358   16/11/2011

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European Commission - Press release

Tackling low achievement in mathematics and science still a challenge in Europe

Brussels, 16 November 2011 – Policy-makers need to do more to help schools tackle low achievement in mathematics and science, according to two reports presented by the European Commission today. The report on mathematics education reveals that only five European countries (England, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and Norway) have set national targets to boost achievement levels, although a majority of EU Member States provide general guidelines to address pupils' difficulties in this area. The report on science shows that no Member States have specific national support policies for low achievers, although five countries (Bulgaria, Germany, Spain, France and Poland) have launched programmes to tackle low achievement in general. The reports conclude that although much has been achieved in updating mathematics and science curricula, support for the teachers responsible for implementing the changes is still lacking.

Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said: "Europe needs to improve its educational performance. Both mathematics and science play a crucial role in modern curricula in meeting not only the needs of the labour market, but also for developing active citizenship, social inclusion and personal fulfilment. These studies show that although progress is being made, we still have a long way to go. We also need to address gender balance so that more girls are encouraged in science and mathematics. It's time to step up our efforts to support the teaching profession and to help children who are struggling at school."

Both reports provide a comparative analysis of approaches to teaching mathematics and science, with the aim of contributing to European and national debate on how to improve standards.

Concerns about achievement levels led to Education Ministers adopting an EU-wide benchmark in 2009 which called for the share of 15-year-olds with insufficient abilities in mathematics, science and reading to be less than 15% by the end of the decade. Of 18 EU countries with comparable data, Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands are the best performers, with Bulgaria and Romania at the other end of the scale (see IP/11/488 )



Mathematical competence has been identified by Education Ministers as one of the key competences necessary for personal fulfilment, active citizenship, social inclusion and employability in a knowledge society.

A range of factors influence the way mathematics is taught and learned. International surveys suggest that pupils' attainment is related to family background, quality of teaching and to the structure and organisation of education systems.

The report on mathematics education (the first produced for the Commission) finds that a majority of European countries have adopted an outcome-based approach, where the focus is on pupils' practical skills. The amount of mathematics content in curricula has decreased while the focus on problem-solving and the application of mathematics has increased. This approach better responds to the needs of students and pupils and clearly shows how they can apply mathematics in the real world.

The challenge that remains, however, is providing the necessary support to teachers, which calls for continuing training. In addition, support and guidance for teaching diverse groups of students need to be strengthened.


Only eight countries (Germany, Spain, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, the United Kingdom and Norway) have overall strategies for promoting science education which address the curricula, teaching methods and further training for teachers. Of the countries which do not have such a strategy, most run individual programmes and projects such as school partnerships and science centres.

In addition, most European countries promote innovative ways of teaching science, such as inquiry-based learning, from primary level onwards. Most also recommend engaging students in discussions on environmental concerns and demonstrating practical applications of science in daily life.

While this is encouraging, specific national support policies for low achievers in science subjects do not exist in any European country. Instead, support is covered by a general framework of measures for pupils with learning difficulties, irrespective of the subject. These include differentiated teaching, one-to-one tuition, peer assisted learning, tutoring and ability grouping.


The studies were compiled by the Eurydice network and focus on curriculum reforms, teaching and assessment methods. They address tackling low achievement, increasing motivation through focusing e.g. on practical applications and teacher education. They examine each topic in the light of academic research, the latest results from international surveys and an in-depth review of national policies and programmes.

The Eurydice Network provides information on and analyses of European education systems and policies. It consists of 37 national units based in all 33 countries participating in the EU's Lifelong Learning Programme (EU Member States, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey). It is co-ordinated and managed by the EU Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency in Brussels, which provides a range of online resources.

For more information:

The full reports [in English]: Mathematics Education in Europe; Common Challenges and National Policies and Science Education in Europe: National Policies, Practices and Research . Printed copies of the study in English are available from December 2011, in French and German shortly afterwards.

European Commission: Education and Training

ANNEX: Facts and figures


1. Percentage of low achieving 15-year-old students in mathematics, 2009

Source: OECD, PISA 2009 database.

The 15% indicated in the figure shows the EU benchmark to be achieved by 2020.

2. Skills and competences in the mathematics curriculum and/or other mathematics steering documents, primary and lower secondary levels (ISCED 1 and 2), 2010/11


3. National level guidelines in addressing low achievement in mathematics,
primary and lower secondary levels (ISCED 1 and 2), 2010/11


1. Percentage of low-achieving 15 year-old students in science, 2009

Source: OECD, PISA 2009 database

The 15% indicated in the figure shows the EU benchmark to be achieved by 2020.

2. Existence of national science centres or similar institutions promoting science education, 2010/11

3. Provision of support for students in science subjects - primary and lower secondary levels (ISCED 1 and 2), 2010/11


Source of figures: Eurydice.

Contacts :

Dennis Abbott (+32 2 295 92 58)

Dina Avraam (+32 2 295 96 67)

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