Press release

Experts to visit Shanghai to raise UK maths standards

Minister leads fact-finding mission to China as part of the government’s efforts to improve maths teaching.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Teaching a maths lesson

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss is to lead a delegation of experts on a fact-finding mission to Shanghai’s schools to see how children there have become the best in the world at maths.

She said that learning from Shanghai - and other far eastern jurisdictions - in how to teach maths was key to improving the country’s competitiveness and productivity. The UK was last year placed 50th out of 148 countries in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness ranking in quality of maths and science education.

Ms Truss is to visit 3 schools (primary and secondary level) and teacher training institutes in Shanghai next week to get a first-hand look at maths classes and teaching methods there.

The trip will allow the group - which includes Dame Rachel de Souza, who leads the high-performing Inspiration Trust of academies, Shahed Ahmed, who runs Elmhurst Primary School, east London and Charlie Stripp, who runs Mathematics in Education and Industry, and is the director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics - to study successful methods and potentially adopt them in schools here.

It is the latest step in the government’s drive to raise standards in maths, looking at what has made jurisdictions in the far east the most successful in the world in teaching the subject, and matching that work.

Shanghai-China’s 15-year-olds topped the 2012 international PISA tables for maths, while England was ranked in 26th place. The top 5 were all south-east Asian jurisdictions - with 15-year-olds in Shanghai judged to be 3 years ahead of their peers here in maths. England’s performance in maths has stagnated while other countries have improved and overtaken us, including Poland and Germany.

Analysis of the results by the OECD showed this week that the children of manual workers in Shanghai and Singapore do better in maths than the children of highly paid professionals in the UK.

Elizabeth Truss said:

Shanghai is the top-performing part of the world for maths - their children are streets ahead. Shanghai and Singapore have teaching practices and a positive philosophy that make the difference. They have a belief that diligence redeems lack of ability.

Our new curriculum has borrowed from theirs because we know it works - early learning of key arithmetic, and a focus on times tables and long division, for instance.

This visit represents a real opportunity for us to see at first hand the teaching methods that have enabled their young people to achieve so well in maths.

They also have a can-do attitude to maths, which contrasts with the long-term anti-maths culture that exists here.

The reality is that unless we change our philosophy, and get better at maths, we will suffer economic decline.

At the moment our performance in maths is weakening our skills base and threatening our productivity and growth. I am determined to change this.

England’s performance in maths has also stagnated at ages 10 and 14, as revealed in the most recent TIMSS tables (2011), which the far east again dominated.

The OECD’s Adult Skills Survey, published last year, also found that our young adults (aged 16 to 24) were among the worst performers in numeracy across the 24 participating countries.

And in the CBI’s Education and Skills Survey last year, 30% of employers reported dissatisfaction with the standard of school and college leavers’ numeracy. More than two-thirds (68%) of employers said they wanted both maths and science promoted more in schools.

The government is prioritising maths because of the importance of good grades in the subject to young people competing for good jobs in a global labour market and to the economy more generally.

Research shows those with A level maths earn between seven and 10% more than similarly skilled workers who do not have the qualification. A study by Deloitte last year showed that the economic return from mathematical science jobs was £74,000 on average compared to the national mean of £36,000.

And children with high maths scores at age 10 earn 7% more at age 30 than those with lower scores, even after pupil characteristics and later qualifications were taken into account, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

A group of heads and teachers from 46 schools in England went to Shanghai on a similar visit last year. A report published in December showed a number of changes had already been implemented. These include creating additional teacher development time, which schools say has led to a marked improvement in teaching grades.

During this latest visit, the group will particularly be investigating how the performance of almost all children in Shanghai is high - irrespective of gender or income, for instance.

The government has recognised the importance of maths as a key subject by undertaking a top-to-bottom overhaul of the subject:

  • introducing a rigorous new curriculum that focuses on the basics in primary so pupils can progress and achieve greater success at secondary
    • there is increased challenge in primary school maths with more demanding concepts (eg calculations of fractions, volume and area) introduced earlier. Children will be expected to know their 12x12 times table by age 9
    • secondary school pupils will learn about rates of change, probability and algebra
  • banning calculators from tests for 11-year-olds
  • bringing in tough new GCSEs that are more demanding than current exams
  • involving our top universities in developing new maths A levels and funding Cambridge University to develop an advanced maths curriculum for A level students so they are ready for rigorous degree courses
  • opening new specialist maths free schools
  • ensuring that all students who do not get a grade C in maths GCSE carry on studying the subject until they do achieve that qualification
  • bringing in new core maths qualifications for the ‘middle group’ of students who pass GCSE maths but do not study A/AS level maths. This will allow for an extra 200,000 young people a year - who currently stop taking the subject at 16 - to carry on studying it
  • providing the highest level of bursaries for the best maths graduates to train to teach
  • providing £11 million for new maths hubs - the money will allow the development of a national network of around 30 maths hubs, each of which will be led by an outstanding school and will provide support to all schools in the area, across all areas of maths education, including recruitment of maths specialists into teaching, initial training of maths teachers and converting existing teachers into maths specialists, and co-ordinating and delivering a wide range of maths CPD and school-to-school support

Currently in England:

  • the amount of time spent teaching maths in England is also low - we are 39th out of 42 countries, with 116 hours a year spent teaching maths at age 14. This compares with 166 hours a year spent teaching maths in Chinese Taipei, 138 hours in Singapore, 138 hours in Hong Kong and 137 hours in South Korea - some of the highest performing education jurisdictions (TIMSS 2011)
  • around 40% of students achieve a C or better in maths GCSE each year - but give up the subject afterwards
  • in Japan, approximately 85% of young people study maths to the equivalent of A level. In Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Hong Kong - examples of high performing countries - maths is compulsory in ‘upper secondary’ (16 to 19) education
  • England currently has the lowest rate of maths participation among 16- to 18-year-olds in the OECD - at about a fifth, compared to all young people in Japan, Korea and Finland, and the vast majority in France, Germany, Massachusets and British Columbia. The Nuffield Foundation has described this country as ‘an outlier’ in the OECD because of its low maths take-up

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Published 18 February 2014