EPI: Primary pupils have ‘long tail of underperformance’ in maths

The gap between the highest and lowest achievers at primary schools in England is larger than in all but two developed nations – and maths teachers are blaming “fragmented” teaching methods.

According to the Education Policy Institute, 21 countries have less of a gap between the best and worst primary maths results, exposing what it calls “a long tail of underperformance” in which pupils are left behind before they reach secondary school.

A senior maths leader has pointed the finger at England’s “fragmented” system, in which teachers are trained in different methods without any centralised consistency, unlike in other top-performing nations.

Jemma Sherwood, the head of maths at Haybridge high school in Worcestershire, said Singapore’s maths teachers attend a single national institute, are trained in the same teaching methods from the same textbooks, and are guaranteed a fixed number of professional development hours.

“The whole thing is being disseminated from the top,” she said. “We have nothing like that here.”

Without any strong centralised system, England only has “pockets” of good teacher training in maths, while the effects of the 35 government-funded maths hubs set up across the country are also yet to be felt, she added.

The think-tank compared key stage 2 maths results for primary school pupils with equivalent tests in 56 countries, using data from the 2015 Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), to establish how English pupils fare against their peers overseas.

The score the government expects pupils to meet in the tests is the same as average pupil performance in the five top countries: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

But only 75 per cent of English pupils meet that standard, compared with 90 per cent in those countries.

Too many pupils score far below the average, and the variation in maths scores is wider in England than between between pupils in 21 other countries. Only New Zealand and Turkey have a bigger gap, according to the report.

Heidi Marke, a secondary school maths teacher, said the new maths curriculum introduced three years ago had been “rushed through” without enough time to prepare, meaning core concepts are often not fully understood before the class moves on.

Her words were echoed by Paul Glaister, professor of mathematics and mathematics education at Reading University, who said the government had placed an emphasis on high volumes of content at the expense of deep understanding.

The maths mastery curriculum in primary schools is “meant to be addressing these shortcomings”, he said, so England performs better in international datasets.

But the Department for Education’s £41 million maths mastery programme, an approach which involves whole-class teaching and taking all pupils through calculations in minute detail before moving on, was only deployed at 1,000 schools last year.

It should now expand to 8,000 primary schools, with 700 teachers trained in the model, by 2020.

The other challenge for teachers is a “cultural” mindset among pupils and parents in England that “maths ability is genetically predetermined”, added Marke.

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  1. Beware the ‘strong centralised system’. In England, this means teaching methods being imposed based on ministerial prejudices. Much better to train teachers in a range of methods so they can choose the best fit for their current pupils.

  2. The EPI report noted that primary pupils in Northern Ireland performed better than those in England. This wasn’t due to a ‘strong centralised system’ where one method and uniform textbooks are imposed on schools but a strong emphasis on the professionalism of teachers well trained in teaching methods to decide the most appropriate strategies.

  3. “The gap between the highest and lowest achievers at primary schools in England is larger than in all but two developed nations – and maths teachers are blaming “fragmented” teaching methods.”

    That is because in the UK the pupil cognitive ability profile is also wider than in other developed nations, and it is cognitive ability that drives attainment.

    The reason for this is because, unlike other developed nations (except the US, that has the same bad outcomes) we have a marketised education system that disincentivises sound developmental teaching methods. See