There are many reasons why this is the case, not least of which is that it appears to be socially acceptable to be bad at Maths. But it is not just the top end who are being let down by the education system.
This will rarely be better illustrated than by Michael Gove's plan to bring back O Levels. While higher ability pupils would be taking the new, harder exams, clearly no serious thought had been given for mid- and lower-ability pupils. They were dismissed off-hand and promised "something like the old CSEs", a worrying afterthought that was barely commented on amidst the ridicule dished out (rightly) to Gove for harking back to some imaginary 1950s Golden Era
But the worst culprit for the neglect of the highest and lowest ability pupils? League tables.
The main measure used to determine whether a school is a success or a failure is the proportion of pupils who achieve 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and Maths.
Those who are going to easily surpass the standard? Well, they can manage on their own.
Those who don't stand a chance of hitting this target no matter how much help you give them? Well, they're not going to help improve the school's standing in the tables, are they?
Those students who might not reach the benchmark? Extra revision sessions! Coursework completion days! One-to-one tuition!
What school wouldn't react in such a way to the pressures the league tables put them under? Fall down the league tables and pushy middle class parents will stop sending their kids your way. Student rolls will fall, staff will be made redundant due to the reduced funding, and fewer talented children will come to your school.
In a few years, when the new Year 7s have worked their way up to Year 11, your results will continue to fall because your newer pupils are less bright than the ones you used to have. The quality of the education you provide may be exactly the same, but in the league tables, it will look like your school has got worse.
Conversely, if you focus on the narrow band of children in the middle, at the expense of all others, you stand a decent chance of rising up the league tables, attracting a "better" standard of pupil who will achieve higher results than previous years simply because they were brighter to start with, and everyone will applaud you for driving up standards.
Meanwhile, other schools will end up labelled failures because you pinched their student intake. And no one wants to be labelled a failure with The Fairy Govemother waving his Enforced-Academy-Conversion Wand around at every available opportunity.
So you can imagine how disappointed I was reading The Sutton Trust's report about Gifted and Talented Maths Provision when I reached this bit:
Highly able children should be identified in Key Stage 2 tests at the end of primary school, possibly those making up the top ten per cent of performers nationally in state schools, and their progress and performance tracked in published secondary school tables.
Yes, that's just what we need. More published league tables with a narrow focus. Surely all pupils are important. If anything is going to be measured, it should be average progress of all pupils, not just tracking those who have met some arbitrary benchmark.
The report recommends monitoring only those who are in the top 10% nationally at age 11. What about those students in the 11th percentile? What opportunities are those students going to miss out on because they weren't so hot on that one day of testing at the end of primary school?
What about those students who still aren't going to make a difference to the school's statistics because they're off the bottom end of the chart? What about those schools that only have one child in their intake who is in the top 10% nationally? They can only achieve a 0% or a 100% success rate on gifted and talented pupils. What kind of measurement is that?
Yes, progress needs to be measured. But it doesn't need to be dressed up in a single catch-all number that only tells you how good the school is at making that single catch-all number look good. It needs to be measured in lots of different ways. And schools don't need to be ranked by it.
Because no matter how many of these measurements are taken, it doesn't tell you how good the school is at all the vitally important things that can't be given a numerical, rankable value. And sadly, in pursuit of position, schools have taken their eye off the ball with such things.
Here are some other wonderful links that I didn't include above:
O-Levels and social mobility
ATL comment on England's ranking in maths tests
Hit and Myth: The truth about standards
When pupil assessment becomes a market