Elizabeth Truss’ visit to China was preceded by a great deal of hard work from the civil service, the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), and sixty of our best maths teachers from all phases of education, designated  “specialist leaders in education” (SLEs). The results so far have been set out in a series of clearly argued and hard-hitting reports which should be read by everyone concerned with maths education, and which can be downloaded here.

The work raises the following key points:

  • In China, pupils work harder than teachers; in the UK, teachers work harder than pupils.
  • In China, children learn the number and calculation systems first, and then apply them. Our children are taught apply them before they’ve been learned. In its most extreme version, of which more shortly, children do not learn standard methods – algorithms – but informal ones, “adhocirithms”.
  • Educational research in the UK pays too little attention to improvements in what children know, understand and can do, and too much attention to the “philosophy” of the researchers.

The first item is clearly cultural. The national culture of China values hard work and learning, with a common system of examinations that is presented to children through stories and legends and unites society. Pupils and their parents willingly sign up to this. Learning matters, and learning maths matters most. If children don’t get their maths right in the morning, they return to it in the afternoon. Failure is not an option. In a nutshell, Chinese people work as hard as they can.

British culture is divided. Most parents put education – if not always maths – first, but many don’t, and those from Gordon Brown’s 50,000 dysfunctional families have deeply negative attitudes that they pass on to their children. The serious misbehaviour of these pupils, and Labour’s “inclusion” policies, will wreck education wherever they are allowed inside the school gate, and they impose an intolerable and unsustainable burden on teachers, who are expected to make up for their poor attitudes by overworking.

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s greatest contribution is to have shown that negative attitudes can be kept out. The more entrenched they are, the harder it is to do this. It is never easy, but it is much harder in areas of long-term unemployment than it is in London, and too many headteachers are prepared to accommodate them rather than confront them.

The second aspect is technical, and the new national curriculum for maths brings the British system much closer to the Chinese, with children expected to master calculation skills at an earlier age, and then apply them. This does not imply a grind. Pupils learn by focused practice rather than drills, and develop mathematical concepts and procedures at the same time. They spend more time on problem-solving
than on listening to the teacher, who provides clear instruction in short bursts.

Here is a sample problem on rational division:

Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in England (!!). On a summer’s day, the temperature at the base of Ben Nevis is 24 degrees Centigrade and at the summit the temperature is 13.25 degrees Centigrade. If the temperature falls by 0.8 degrees Centigrade per 100m of altitude, how high is Ben Nevis?’

Charlie Stripp, Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCTEM), noted high levels of achievement among all pupils, with a much smaller gap between top and bottom than in the UK, and concluded:

I expected rote learning and an oppressive classroom atmosphere. Instead I saw what I believe would be recognised as very good maths teaching anywhere in the world.

But how to assess the impact of all of this on standards in maths? This is clearly essential, and may lead to this government winning a battle with the educational establishment that Labour lost.

At the height of Blair’s Educational Year Zero, 2006, Professor Geoff Whitty, Director of the London Institute of Education, wrote in the British Education Research Journal that conflict between the researchers and governments was probably inevitable. Governments were concerned with “what worked” and the research community had other things on its mind.

In his case, this was the pursuit of equality, and he and his predecessor, Professor Peter Mortimore, actually produced a pamphlet questioning the value of improving schools, as this was likely to lead to more inequality and not less, as the more able (sorry, advantaged) would continue to achieve more. This was after he had been berated by a succession of Labour Secretaries of State, including Blunkett, Kelly and Clarke, complaining, with some justification, that the researchers never did anything useful.

The ministers were, of course, quite right, which is why this government was right to extend the remit of the National College to teaching as well as leadership, and to develop other channels of research that are more likely to produce direct benefits to children. The teachers taking part have developed an extensive series of new techniques that will help them to work more efficiently, and the college has distributed guidelines on constructing small scale research that will evaluate them in terms of their results, rather than on their contribution to utopian philosophy.

Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.