Sheffield Hallam University report casts doubt on government's Shanghai 'maths mastery' plan

Academics in Yorkshire are leading the way in an evaluation of the government’s plan to bring Shanghai-style “maths mastery” to thousands of schools in the UK – but suggest that cultural and professional differences may hinder a seachange in the way pupils learn the subject.

Sunday, 27th January 2019, 3:37 pm
Updated Sunday, 27th January 2019, 3:38 pm

Sheffield Hallam University researchers have assessed how well a plan for English schools to adopt East Asian mathematics teaching methods is working in its early stages.

In 2016, the Department for Education (DfE) unveiled a multi-million pound fund to help more than 8,000 schools - half of the total number in England - receive support to adopt the approach.

Methods used by leading maths performers such as Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong often emphasise the mastery of small steps during whole-class interactive sessions, with all pupils progressing together.

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This contrasts with an approach in England which can be broadly characterised by objective-led sessions heavy on teacher explanation, where low attaining pupils progress more slowly and higher attaining children accelerate their learning.

On Friday the university released its new evaluation of the DfE’s programme, which largely focused on teacher exchanges between China and England between 2015 and 2018.

It concluded that there were positive impacts on Key Stage 1 maths pupils in schools that engaged with the method, but found “no quantifiable evidence” that attainment among Key Stage 2 children was improved when compared to schools not using the Shanghai approach.

The findings were “inconclusive” and said further evidence was needed about whether the programme “represents value for money” and if “the intended mechanism for system-wide change is likely to succeed”.

Evaluation leader Mark Boylan, of Sheffield Hallam, told The Yorkshire Post: “It doesn’t look, on the evidence so far, that it’s going to have a massive effect, like the Government hopes, in really making a step change.”

There are three key cultural and professional reasons for this, he suggested.

Because of China’s former one-child policy, it means parents and grandparents are heavily involved in just one pupil’s education.

And mathematics teachers in East Asia have a “profound” knowledge of the subject, while English primary educators teach more generally – and thirdly their workload is very different.

Mr Boylan said that new teachers in Shaghai have 500 hours of subject-specific professional development time during first five years - English teachers get just a third of what they do - and get a lot of time to plan lessons.

He added: “One of the things to consider is maybe that what’s behind success in Singapore and Shanghai is how the teachers are supported in those countries to do their job.”

However, Mr Boylan said that the analysis has previously made a genuine difference to the Government’s investment and approach to the programme.

“We’re very pleased that we asked to do the evaluation,” he said.

School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said the report shows “the Shanghai – England Maths Teacher Exchange has been a positive influence on our schools, with the lessons learned from it having demonstrable effects in classrooms”.