Nick Gibb speech on government’s maths reforms

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

School Reform Minister Nick Gibb speaks to the London Thames Maths Hub Primary Conference.

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure to be here today at the Harris Primary maths conference. This government’s education reforms have been the most radical for a generation. And the growth of the Harris Federation of academies and free schools to a chain of 36 primary and secondary schools has been one of the great successes of the last 5 years. Our approach to deliver greater autonomy for schools through academisation was based on clear evidence from around the world that in the most successful school systems schools are autonomous and accountable.

The Harris Federation is also part of another of the evidence-based approaches we have put at the heart of our education reforms - mathematics for mastery. In early years teaching, Harris schools use Singapore maths and beyond the early years, Harris primary schools have adopted the effective mathematics curriculum, which combines Singapore and Shanghai approaches, and use maths no problem textbooks.

As part of the second wave of the Shanghai teacher exchange, last week I was fortunate enough to observe a lesson at the Harris Primary Academy in Chafford Hundred, Essex, led by Lin Lei. In a 35 minute lesson, with all pupils facing the teacher and engaged throughout, Lin taught all of the pupils to carry out complex types of long multiplication through clear explanation of calculation methods.

Some of you may have already heard me tell that story (perhaps even more than once) since I observed the lesson last week! But I think that reflects something truly positive - that we are undergoing a transformation in our approach to maths and how it is taught in schools.

That transformation is so important, because our performance in maths had been stagnating over a number of years. From 2005 to 2010, while in opposition I visited hundreds of schools across the country. What I learnt from these visits was that few pupils at primary or secondary school knew their times tables. Long multiplication and long division were rarely taught, with inefficient methods such as the grid method for multiplication and chunking for long division commonplace in classrooms, neither of which are used in the Far East. When I showed visiting members of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission they were bemused.

I have also spent time reviewing grade E and F scripts of all 3 main exam boards maths GCSEs. What this exercise revealed was that most of the problems came down to a lack of knowledge of how to carry out basic arithmetic: pupils couldn’t multiply numbers of more than 1 digit. This was a result of the approach to teaching maths.

For too long we set expectations too low for pupils. An approach of differentiation in primary schools saw classes being taught in different groups, pupils expected to progress at different rates and acceleration on to new topics for those doing well rather than consolidation. An over-emphasis on concepts at the expense of practice, fluency and, through that, understanding meant that too many pupils simply did not know how to perform calculations. Using textbooks became unpopular, with only 10% of maths teachers in England using a textbook for core teaching, compared to 70% in Singapore and 95% in Finland according to TIMSS 2011.

This stagnation was reflected in our international performance in maths. Coming 24th in the PISA maths tables in 2012 was equivalent to a 3 year difference between the performance of our 15-year-olds and those at the top of the table - in Shanghai. And take up of the study of maths post-15 in England was among the lowest throughout the OECD.

Education was failing pupils - too often those from poorer backgrounds - and denying them the opportunities that come with the study of maths. Only a solid grounding in the basics of maths will allow pupils to do well at the next level and proceed to further study such as A level. People with an A level in maths go on to earn 7 to 10% more than similarly educated people without the qualification and it opens doors to a whole range of interesting careers. We want to inspire young people to recognise the importance of maths and the opportunities it can offer, and continue studying it to the highest level so that they can compete with the best in the world and succeed throughout their education and careers.

That is why we have attached such importance to maths, along with STEM subjects more widely. We have introduced the 34 new maths hubs and £67 million announced by the Prime Minister for STEM teaching will improve the skills of 15,000 existing teachers, and recruit an additional 2,500 specialist maths and physics teachers over the next Parliament.

We have come a long way already. Here we are today talking about mastery - which embodies the idea that every pupil can do well and achieve high standards in maths. Mastery is the model of the high-performing Asian systems such as Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea. It delivers a meticulous approach to arithmetic, whole class teaching and focused 35 minute lessons. Frequent practice allows pupils to consolidate their understanding, and pupils are assisted through immediate and tailored in-class questioning and scaffolding techniques. Homework is frequent, and simply and quickly marked.

The mastery approach also uses high quality resources and teaching tools - especially textbooks. Great effort and collaboration goes towards perfecting lesson design, with close attention to effective teaching methods. Whole lessons are devoted to thorough teaching of small steps of calculation - the use of the zero, for example in long multiplication.

We have introduced a new national curriculum, which is more detailed and more demanding, to reflect the mastery approach. Year 1 pupils are introduced to all 4 functions and to basic fractions. In year 2, basic columnar addition and subtraction is studied, with carrying and borrowing in year 3. In year 2 the teaching of times tables begins, and pupils are expected to know all of the times tables up to 12 x 12 by year 4.

Instant recall of facts like times tables is crucial because the working memory is small and so they need to be committed to long term memory, as explained by Daniel Willingham in his book ‘Why don’t students like school’. Such recall from long term memory is essential to be able to add fractions, and perform long multiplication and division, which pupils will be taught in year 5 and year 6. The year by year approach sets out greater clarity and the focus on fluency in the essentials of maths allows time for pupils to practise more to ensure deep knowledge. We are also expecting the majority of pupils to move through programmes of study at roughly the same pace.

We have made important changes to testing. The new key stage 2 tests will assess pupils’ mastery of mathematics and the first of these new tests will be taken in summer 2016. At secondary level, reformed maths GCSEs will be more challenging qualifications, sat for the first time in 2017, with teaching beginning in September this year. While A levels will only introduce a small amount of new content, students will be required to have a deeper understanding of the mathematics they are taught. We have also focused on progression to A level, which has increased by 13% since 2010, meaning maths is now the most popular A level.

There is no doubt that we could not be delivering these reforms to maths without the work and dedication of schools and school groups like Harris and others who are also here today.

Through the maths hubs programme, you have been taking part in the Shanghai teacher exchange, which provides an important opportunity to learn from teachers in one of the best systems in the world, as you implement teaching for mastery in your schools. The most recent exchange came to an end on Friday, and was a resounding success. Across the maths hubs, schools are also trialling Singapore textbooks, which provide a coherent, structured programme and benefit teachers, pupils and parents.

The next step to help spread and embed mastery is to develop a cadre of 140 primary mastery experts, who will support 3,500 teachers across primary schools to introduce teaching for mastery of mathematics effectively.

I am grateful to all of you for being part of these reforms. They are an important example of how we have looked to the evidence of what works to deliver better outcomes to inform our policymaking. I am confident that the reward we reap from this approach will be a better quality maths teaching in our schools, higher standards of attainment among pupils and greater opportunities for them as a result.

Thank you.