Making maths lessons count20 March 2014 | by Jeremy Sutcliffe
A recent study has shown that 15-year-olds in English schools lag three years behind their peers in Shanghai in maths. But Jeremy Sutcliffe argues that attainment in this vital subject is improving and that Catholic schools are among those doing best
In recent months, two major international studies have raised serious questions about the state of mathematics education in Britain. Both come from the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which monitors the impact of government policies on the world’s leading countries.
The first study, published in October 2013, found that young adults aged 16 to 24 in England were among the worst in the developed world at maths, coming twenty-first out of 24 countries in numeracy tests. Equally shocking was the fact that young English adults were no better at basic maths than older people aged 55 to 65. Altogether, there were 8.5 million adults across the country with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old, the study concluded.
The second study, published last December, looked at the performance of 15-year-olds in maths tests and was undertaken as part of the OECD’s long-running Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa). Once again, England failed to make the top 20, narrowly losing out to Scotland but ahead of Northern Ireland and Wales. Overall, the UK was ranked twenty-sixth out of 65 developed and emerging countries.
The UK’s position was virtually unchanged since the last Pisa study published in 2009, leading the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to describe Britain’s performance in maths as “at best stagnant, at worst declining” since the 1990s.
The political battle to do something to halt the country’s relative decline in maths is now heating up. Gove has already put plans into place for a revised maths curriculum, which is due to come into force in September 2015. On 12 March, the Conservative Education Minister Elizabeth Truss told a newly formed all-party parliamentary group for maths and numeracy that there was “a growing consensus around the importance of maths education with both Conservatives and Labour wanting all students to continue with maths until 18”.
The minister had just returned from a visit to discover how 15-year-olds in Shanghai had become the best in the world at maths, with knowledge and skills three years in advance of their British peer group, according to the OECD. She said the Chinese city’s superior performance – which has taken it to the top of the Pisa rankings along with two other Asian city-states, Singapore and Hong Kong – was due to its superior teaching practices and a positive philosophy. She contrasted their “can-do attitude in maths” with what she claimed to be “the long-term anti-maths culture” in the UK.
But is our performance in maths really so bad? The reliability of the Pisa tests has been called into question by a number of education experts and statisticians who claim that figures for some countries are artificially inflated because of the children they select to take the tests, or exclude.
Tom Loveless, of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington DC, said that Shanghai’s figures were skewed because the children of migrant workers – who make up almost half the population – were effectively excluded from the city’s high schools and forced instead to go back to their home villages for their education.
Among the OECD’s critics is Christopher Wilcocks, head teacher of St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Gomm Road, Southwark, south-east London, whose Year 6 pupils achieved a 100 per cent success rate at level 4 in their maths SATs in 2013, making it one of the highest-achieving schools in the country in the subject.
“I hear anecdotally from secondary teachers who say their children are not motivated to take the Pisa tests in the same way they are motivated to take their GCSEs. If you give a test to a child and say, ‘Do this test, it’s no big deal’, you will get rubbish back. The child knows that it doesn’t matter to them personally whether they come top, or bottom.
“Children should be judged by what their GCSE levels are. If you look at GCSE maths, it’s of a very high standard and GCSE standards are going up and up. I would like to see a comparison of our GCSE maths results with comparable exams in other countries.”
St Joseph’s progress in maths is down to a simple formula of teaching in ability sets, with children only allowed to move on to the next step once they have consolidated their learning. Any children who are struggling are given 15-minute catch-up sessions to help them master the subject.
Another success story is St Thomas More Catholic School in Wood Green, north London, which was the most improved secondary school in the country in the GCSE league tables last year. The proportion of Year 11s achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths, rose from 31 to 91 per cent between 2010 and 2013, a staggering increase.
This improvement has been led by executive head teacher Martin Tissot, who also runs St George’s Roman Catholic School in Maida Vale, west London. St George’s became notorious in the 1990s when a previous head, Philip Lawrence, was stabbed to death at the school gates by a former pupil, but has since been transformed. Both schools are now in the top 5 per cent in the country for maths.
Tissot puts this success down to strong leadership and strict discipline. “There’s no great secret in all this. I believe in effective discipline. The schools are run as strict, traditional Catholic schools. We are not oppressive institutions, we just want to make sure behaviour is good so that children can learn and we can live out our mission as Catholic schools; so that children understand the message of the gospels and develop their spirituality in a positive way,” he says.
But while good teaching and strong leadership are behind these success stories, it would be a mistake to think it is all about “chalk and talk”. Maths teaching has changed radically in the UK over the last decade and for most children lessons in algebra and quadratic equations are enlivened by highly interactive lessons using whiteboards, tablet computers and other hand-held devices.
It is in this area that the UK can still lay claim to being among the best in the world. While the tiger economies of Asia may beat us hollow in pencil and paper tests, they increasingly look to this country for our creativity and problem-solving skills in maths. These very British attributes underpin our striking success in areas such as computer technology and software design that are bringing increasing economic gains in the form of developing games and other apps for mobile phones and tablet computers.
Jane Imrie, deputy director of the government-funded National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), says that while the headline figures provided by the OECD studies are a wake-up call, they do not reveal the whole picture.
“We do have some outstanding maths teaching in this country. The number of students taking A-level maths and further maths is increasing. Participation post-16 isn’t where we would like it to be by any means, but it is definitely moving in the right direction.”
Perhaps the key message is that we should continue to improve our maths provision by learning from the best practitioners wherever they are – at home or abroad. “There’s a lot that we can learn, particularly from East Asia. Those countries have a very strong tradition of professional support and a longer curriculum cycle as well. They take much longer to develop and redevelop the curriculum, often over a 10-year period. During that time, teachers and researchers are all contributing to any potential changes that are going to come in future,” says Imrie.
It remains to be seen whether, in a country where the democratic cycle takes place over a much shorter period and teachers are all too often excluded from policy-making, these lessons will be learned. Indeed, many in the profession would argue, that is the real trouble with maths and so much else in our schools.
Jeremy Sutcliffe is a freelance journalist specialising in education.
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