Basic Competence in Mathematics: Swedish and English 16-Year-Olds

CEP Discussion Paper No. 385

30 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 1998

See all articles by Alison Wolf

Alison Wolf

University of London

Hilary Steedman

London School of Economics

Date Written: March 1998


The transition to mass participation in post-16 education, which had occurred considerably earlier in other European countries, has finally taken place in England. However, high drop-out and failure rates persist, particularly on vocational qualification routes. Our hypothesis is that an important factor is the lack of basic competence of lower-achieving English students in the key skills English language and Mathematics required for success in further study. Our research addresses the validity of the argument by investigating whether any significant difference can be detected between the skills of English students entering post-compulsory education and those of students in countries where drop-out and failure rates are low. The country investigated in this study is Sweden where participation of 16-year-olds in post-compulsory education is currently over 90 per cent; and where some 90 per cent of those enrolling normally obtain an academic or vocational qualification. Some GCSE Maths questions were incorporated into the national test taken by Swedish 16-year-olds at the end of compulsory schooling; and significant differences were found in the scores of the lower 40 per cent of the cohort in the two countries. The results are consistent with the hypothesis; and also go beyond previous Swedish-English comparisons, which reflect the general emphasis in international studies on younger age groups (typically 9 and 13-year-olds).

JEL Classification: I21

Suggested Citation

Wolf, Alison and Steedman, Hilary, Basic Competence in Mathematics: Swedish and English 16-Year-Olds (March 1998). CEP Discussion Paper No. 385, Available at SSRN: or

Alison Wolf (Contact Author)

University of London ( email )

20 Bedford Way
London, WC1H 0AL
United Kingdom
+44 171 612 6661 (Phone)
+44 171 612 6686 (Fax)

Hilary Steedman

London School of Economics ( email )

Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE
+44 171 955 7789 (Phone)
+44 171 955 7595 (Fax)

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