Eastern promise, Nordic myths and curry
As I write, Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss and a group of school heads are flying to China on a fact finding mission to discover why Chinese pupils excel at mathematics. This visit coincides with a report released last Monday, which revealed that the children of elementary workers (cleaners, factory workers, labourers) in Shanghai outperform at maths the children of professionals (lawyers, doctors) in Britain. The same is true of relatively poor children in Hong Kong and South Korea, whilst relatively poor children in Japan, Vietnam, Liechtenstein and China-Taipei are only just behind the wealthiest pupils in Britain.
These figures are frightening, but also inspiring. Yet again they put heed to the myth, popular in British schools, that poor children cannot succeed. So what are Chinese schools doing differently? Many claim that China’s success at mathematics is a cultural peculiarity that cannot be replicated in England. The Chinese, so it is claimed, have a fondness for high stakes examinations that goes all the way back to the entrance test for the Confucian civil service, whilst their disciplined family life and rapid economic growth has led to competitive atmosphere which drives children to achieve.
What is more, many have been writing that this hot-housing culture should not be emulated, as it leads to depressed pupils robbed of their childhood. Such was the spirit of an article in the Sunday Times, but an English teacher who had worked at a school ‘out east’:
Equally, Simon Jenkins argued in the Guardian that his mathematics lessons have proven entirely useless out of school – a complacent argument typical of the left-leaning beneficiary of an excellent private education. It wound me up so much that I wrote a response here.
These broad brush strokes about ‘Chinese culture’ miss the point. As Liz Truss recognises, Chinese schools employ very particular ‘teaching practices’ that are generally absent in British schools. However, she does not have to fly to Shanghai to see them in action.
The 27 ARK academies in England teach ‘Mathematics Mastery’, a programme inspired by the methods used in Shanghai and Singapore. Last week, its director Helen Drury wrote in the TES that Maths Mastery has a focus on the fundamentals such as learning times tables. For decades, progressive educators have complained that such ‘rote-learning’ is a barrier to understanding, but schemes such as Maths Mastery shows that it is in fact a gateway. Unlike more ‘progressive’ methods, Maths Mastery gets results: ARK’s St Alban’s Academy in Birmingham has the best added value in maths for any school in the country.
Memorising times tables and number bonds (simple additions and subtractions) is like memorising verbs in a language – it is an absolute prerequisite for moving onto more complex procedures. Nick Gibb wrote in an excellent article for the Telegraph, explaining how the teaching methods popular in Britain disdain such fundamentals, dismissing the quick recall of sums as ‘rote learning’ and attacking the use of standard algorithms (such as long division) as antithetical to understanding.
In cahoots with the progressive supporters of ‘new maths’ (circa. 1960) are the techno-zealots who claim we should ‘Leave sums to computers’—as one headline in yesterday’s Sunday Times read. This doctrine has been popular since pocket calculators spread to schools in the early 1980s, but then as now, it is damaging and false. There is a reason why graduate schemes for jobs in finance still involve rigorous numeracy tests: understanding of complex mathematics cannot be reached without first achieving a high level of numeracy. We outsource this ability to our calculators at our peril.
British educators must see past the silly scare stories about the ‘Gaokao’ (the competitive Chinese University entrance exams), or the ‘Hagwon’ (private after-school crammers of South Korea). Putting crude national caricatures to one side, there is much to be learnt from the value still placed by South Asian countries on mastering the basics in mathematics.
In the game of international comparisons, China and South Korea may be the traditionalist’s trump card. On the other side of the debate, Finland is popularly upheld as some Nordic nirvana of child-centred achievement. In the Guardian last year, Peter Wilby painted a picture of a system where no setting, no uniform, minimal homework and informal school discipline leads to great outcomes. Similarly, Danny Dorling argued that Finland shows that high levels of economic equality are the route to educational success.
Two weeks ago in the Guardian, Dorling argued that Finland comes ‘out on top’ in international comparisons. Keep up Dorling! Finland actually fell from 6th place in 2009 to 12th place in 2012. What is more, Finland’s scores in the TIMSS international comparison, which focuses more on curriculum knowledge, have been falling since 1999. As Gabriel Heller Sahlgren wrote in the Spectator last year, there are a great many myths about Finnish success. For example, the supposedly egalitarian Finland actually has a competitive examination at 16 which decides entry to the academically selective sixth form colleges. It is an article worth reading.
Over the past week, I have found myself talking to others sympathetic with Gove’s reforms about ‘Govephobia’, the visceral hatred that the education minister appears to inspire. As I agree with much of what Gove is doing, my concern is that Gove may have become a bad advocate for his own cause.
I have written about the causes of Govephobia before, but this week I was alerted to another possible factor– he is never out of the press. Numbers crunched by the Economist show Gove’s mentions in the press are beaten only by Cameron, Osborne and Clegg. He receives significantly more coverage than Theresa May, William Hague or Ian Duncan Smith. Perhaps Gove has become a collation whipping boy due to his high level of media exposure, willingly courted as a former journalist, rather than an engagement with his ideas and reforms?
On this subject, a rare bird was sighted in the press last week – a teacher willing to offer Gove praise. John Townsley, the head of the Gorse Academies Trust in Yorkshire, wrote a piece for the Telegraph explaining how the success of one of his schools, Farnley Academy, ‘represents a triumph of the Coalition’s education reform programme’. Their results have moved from 32 percent of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, to 73 percent in just five years. Townsley praised reforms such as the EBacc, Academisation, Free Schools and changes to Ofsted inspections, writing,
People need to wake up – this is the most important reform programme undertaken in any aspect of Government life. Children, especially the poorest, are being emancipated from the mediocrity that would have been their lives. That is what is happening at The Farnley Academy.
At the end of the week, the ‘Control’ of education bloggers, Old Andrew, invited the online community to come in from the cold and meet in a curry house in London. I felt as if I had stepped into my computer, with real faces introducing themselves by their twitter handles as living, breathing humans. Very twenty-first century.
Attendance at the event proved that education reform in Westminster is being accompanied by grass roots change. Teachers are increasingly willing to question the dominant nostrums of the education establishment. When such nostrums are questioned amongst twenty-five like minds over lamb jalfrezis and pints of Cobra, more’s the better. Thank you Andrew for organising a great event.