Lessons from Finland: How we can reform maths teaching in schools

THE UK’s educational standards remain low. Our pupils have fallen behind those in Germany and have been overtaken by peers in Poland. The last round of OECD tests for 15 year olds showed that the UK’s position in literacy, science and maths has fallen again.

The coalition has attempted to reverse this decline and has put fresh emphasis on liberalising schooling, introducing a new curriculum, and reviewing the exam system. But the vital position of maths remains uncertain. Simon Jenkins, the columnist, recently said he regrets the “millions [spent on] teaching maths to reluctant pupils”. Jenkins is wrong. Maths is important and necessary to lead a full adult life. Better maths teaching would also offer long-term benefits for the UK in a highly competitive world.

A number of factors are holding back maths teaching in England. Despite significant investment, and evidence that skills have improved, many still do not reach an adequate standard when they leave primary school. The quality of teachers’ is particularly problematic. The highest maths qualification for the majority of those entering the profession is a C grade at GCSE. The majority of secondary school teachers remain in post for less than five years, when research suggests it takes five years for a teacher to become expert.

This leads to children not being fully stretched at primary school. They enter secondary school, where there is a similar shortage of adequately-trained teachers, and become either bored or fail to cope. This results in low numbers taking maths at university, and the cycle continues with not enough well-qualified young people entering teaching.

It may seem easier to concentrate on secondary school maths, but for long-term improvements we must solve the problem at its root in primary schools. And the solution may be found in evidence from three high-performing education systems – Finland, Japan and Singapore.

Take Finland. The country has managed to attract huge numbers of highly-qualified young people to teaching. Compared to Britain’s relatively small annual intake, Finland’s ratio of applicants for training is approximately 10:1, even though the job isn’t particularly well-paid. This is partly because the national curriculum allows freedom for teachers to use their own preferred methods – with beneficial results. In many cases, student-focused activities form a substantial part of lessons. They develop or apply mathematical thinking to problems set by their teacher, and take responsibility for their learning through extra work for the most able and extra support for the least.

Japan has similar characteristics. Again, Japanese primary school teachers have considerably higher levels of maths ability. And like Finland, the official Japanese course of study is commendably brief, with teachers again having freedom to innovate.

When you bring in Singapore, you notice another striking common factor in common. There is a strong continuum between primary and secondary school maths. The foundations are introduced early on, and there is none of the disruptive break in teaching experienced in England’s system.

The crucial point is that all three countries have implemented national curricula in which knowledge of the fundamentals is stressed, but in which problem-solving also plays a central role. This provides motivation for teachers and ensures that pupils enjoy the subject and make progress.

The result is that students develop inquiring minds and a thirst for knowledge: they take responsibility for learning and how to learn. This contrasts strongly with the UK model, where teachers transfer knowledge to students through examples, and pupils spend much of the lesson in practice mode. Singapore, Finland and Japan still allow plenty of practice, but crucially teachers have the freedom to pose problems, and leave the responsibility to students to solve them.

It’s vital that the government concentrates on improving maths teaching in primary schools. Anything else is just “putting sticking plaster on the cracks”, rather than providing a sustainable solution. A strong foundation in basic maths will allow young British students to progress with confidence as they proceed through the curriculum.

David Burghes is a professor of mathematics at the University of Plymouth. This is an extract from Primary Problems: A First Curriculum for Mathematics, published by the think tank Politeia.

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