Chinese teaching 'can boost maths'

Herald Series: Liz Truss is in Shanghai to look at maths teaching methods after a study by the OECD found children there were three years ahead of those in the UK Liz Truss is in Shanghai to look at maths teaching methods after a study by the OECD found children there were three years ahead of those in the UK

England must learn from effective methods pioneered in China to improve teaching of maths in its schools, after 15 years in which it has "stagnated", a Government education minister has said.

Liz Truss is undertaking a visit to Shanghai to look at teaching methods, after a study by international think-tank the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that children in the Chinese city were three years ahead of their counterparts in the UK.

Ms Truss said she believed the Chinese methods were working, and trials involving teachers from England have been shown to be effective.

However, doubt was cast on the reliability of the OECD findings by an American academic, who said that results in Shanghai schools were not comparable to those in English and US schools because large numbers of children are excluded from high school education in the Chinese city.

The OECD study made headlines worldwide with its finding that the children of cleaners in Shanghai and Singapore outperform the sons and daughters of UK doctors and lawyers in global maths tests.

The report looked at the maths results and background of more than half a million 15-year-olds who took part in the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study.

It found that in the UK, the children of parents with a "professional" job - such as doctor or lawyer - scored 525.94 points on average in the Pisa maths test and those with parents in "elementary" occupations - such as cleaners and catering assistants - an average 460.61, while children from "elementary" backgrounds scored an average 568.9 points in Shanghai and 533.58 in Singapore.

Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD, said the "simple message" of the findings was: "If school systems want all of their students to succeed in school, they should give the children of factory workers and cleaners the same education opportunities as the children of doctors and lawyers enjoy."

But American education expert Tom Loveless, of the Brookings Institution think-tank, said that the children of migrant workers - who make up almost half of Shanghai's population and fill many of the lowliest occupations - were effectively excluded from the city's high schools by a system which forced many of them to return to their home villages for their education.

Mr Loveless told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the data used in the OECD study were not sufficiently "finely grained" to show whether parents were in fact in cleaning jobs.

"Even though those parents may show up as being of non-professional occupations, it doesn't mean they are cleaners. They might be computer programmers," he said. " "Once you have a system that selects the students, you really can't draw conclusions."

Speaking from Shanghai, Ms Truss told the BBC's Today programme: "The children that are at the schools in Shanghai are doing three years better than children at schools in England.

"That's the reality of the situation and we shouldn't kid ourselves that there is somehow an explanation for that very high performance that isn't about what's going on in those schools because I've seen it for myself, I've seen the very high quality teaching taking place, I've seen the way that children are understanding concepts at an earlier age than they are in England.

"What I want to do is learn from that really good practice so that we can apply it in England because at the moment we have stagnated in terms of our maths performance for the last 15 years, while other countries like Germany and Poland have been learning from the East, taking those lessons back and improving their teaching standards and their curriculum.

"We need to do that too, we can't spend out time trying to explain away differences. Instead, we should be looking at what these countries are doing successfully and applying it in our own country."

Ms Truss added: "We've had 50 maths teachers out in Shanghai implementing those techniques in English schools and we've already seen improvements in teaching grades as a result of it. So the Shanghai method does work and it's already proving effective in England. This visit is about deepening that relationship to make sure we can learn even more from the positive attitude and the positive culture towards maths in China."

Asked about Mr Loveless's criticisms of the OECD study, Ms Truss said: "It seems that the Shanghai teaching methodology uses resources much more effectively and also focuses on the core arithmetic that children need to have from an early age. So we see very high levels of verbalisation of maths, very high levels of specialist maths teaching in primary school as well as secondary school.

"It is really a matter for the OECD exactly which people have been in comparator tests, but the OECD has verified that Shanghai is three years ahead of the UK and Singapore is two years ahead. What we know is that all these countries in east Asia are doing well, but China in particular is improving their performance and they are doing it by focusing very hard on teacher quality and making sure they follow up when children aren't succeeding.

"So they do have a very good rate of getting all children to a basic level of mathematics.

"Andreas Schleicher has been clear that there is evidence which shows that Shanghai is doing well. Certainly the evidence we've seen in schools is that children of all abilities are being encouraged to have a positive attitude towards mathematics.

"Any problems are being followed up and they have an approach where they have both larger and smaller class sizes, so there are small groups to make sure all children have mastered the concepts but also large groups to make sure that good teaching resources are being used effectively."

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