English pupils’ maths scores improve under East Asian approach
Schools in England experimenting with East Asian teaching methods have seen an improvement in children’s mathematics skills after just one year, according to a study.
The research which represents the first hard evidence that introducing a Singaporean “maths mastery” approach into English classrooms can influence results, found a “relatively small but welcome improvement” in children’s performance.
The report’s lead author warned however that the mastery programme should not be seen as “a silver bullet” and called for it to be tested over a longer period in a greater number of schools in order to build a fuller picture.
Policymakers have been studying teaching methods in East Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea, which dominate the Pisa international league tables measuring children’s academic achievement. Children there are on average more than one year ahead of their western peers in maths.
The mastery programme differs radically from current maths teaching in England, with fewer topics covered in greater depth, and every child expected to master the topic before the class moves on. Teachers hold weekly hour-long workshops to discuss lesson planning.
The study, led by UCL Institute of Education and the University of Cambridge, evaluated the impact of a Singaporean-inspired teaching programme in 90 English primary schools and 50 secondaries where it was taught to more than 10,000 pupils in year 1 (aged 5-6) and year 7 (11-12).
After a year they saw a small increase in children’s maths test scores compared with pupils in other schools which was roughly equivalent to one additional month of progress over the academic year. The programme is designed to have a cumulative effect, with the full benefit evident after five years.
Researchers also analysed the programme’s potential economic benefits. Using data from the British Cohort Study, which follows the lives of 17,000 people born in a single week in 1970, researchers predicted that an additional month’s progress in maths at the age of 10 would increase average wages by £100-£200 per year.
The study’s lead author John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education said: “Maths mastery shouldn’t be seen as a silver bullet; there is no escaping that the effect of the programme was relatively small, though welcome.
Yet, given the low cost per pupil, it may nevertheless be a programme worth pursuing.
“The programme should now be tested over a longer time period with a greater number of schools,” Jerrim said. “More evidence is needed on its impact after teachers have become familiar with its novel approach, and after children have been exposed to the programme for a prolonged period of time.”
Jerrim has previously worked on research which suggested that cultural factors may play a significant part in the academic success of children in countries such as Singapore and China, rather than it all being down to teaching methods.
The mastery approach is used by the Ark academy chain in England. Helen Drury, director of Ark’s mathematics mastery programme, said: “Our approach is a collaborative partnership building on our experience of what works.
“That means spending more time on fewer subjects to give students a firm foundation. East Asian countries have demonstrated that every child can succeed in mathematics, but it’s not about importing an approach wholesale.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Ensuring every young person leaves school with good maths and numeracy skills is a key part of our commitment to delivering real social justice.
“We are pleased this research confirms that adopting a Singaporean ‘mastery’ approach to teaching will help us to achieve this.”
Ruth Merttens, professor of primary education at University of St Mark and St John and co-director of the Hamilton Education Trust, has previously urged caution over adopting East Asian teaching programmes into England.
Commenting on the research, she said: “When putting in the mastery Singaporean approach, it is necessary to provide quite systematic training for the teachers. How do we know that it was not the training of the teachers and the consequent deepening of their understanding of mathematics and mathematics pedagogy that produces the small but positive improvement?
“In other words, surely if you put in a systematic programme of training then the precise method may not matter. It is the teacher being better placed to teach more effectively that makes a difference.
“Such pieces of research as this are highly useful in that they give an indication of what things to prioritise within teaching maths, rather than telling us what textbooks to impose.”
The Guardian, 18th June 2015.