First I must disclose an interest. Next year, two days of my time will be funded by the Maths Hub programme, albeit a very small slither of the £41m announced today to continue the roll out of the Maths Hub Teaching for Mastery programme in English Primary Schools. £41m over 4 years is not a lot of money in the context of the 17,000 primary schools in England. I’ve done the Maths – it’s roughly £2400 per school, or £600 p.a. But at this stage, it’s not about trying to reach every school. In fact, the approach that is being taken here is the right one, i.e. schools need to opt in to this programme and at the moment nothing is being forced upon them. Although doesn’t that remind you of some other educational programme which started life in the same guise?
I believe that most teachers of Mathematics would instinctively agree with the core principles of a mastery approach. That is covering concepts over a slightly longer period of time, using the time to go deeper, to consolidate understanding of concepts through carefully constructed practice and problem solving. To bring the whole class forward together and to provide challenge for higher attainers through depth rather than moving them on to the next topic. The former content-focussed assessment system of levels rewarded pupils and their teachers for ticking as many items as possible on a long list of topics but I reckon most teachers had a strong hunch that this is not how children develop their mathematical abilities.
So it’s a good start in the right direction. But why do the DfE insist on referring to it as the “South Asian method”?
There is nothing wrong with looking beyond our own shores to identify specific areas of good practice that we believe will work well in our country. I just don’t see why it needs to be the cornerstone of an education policy and a justification for a change in approach. There are several things that bother me about the international comparison. Maybe it starts with a sense of national pride. Why must we send 70-odd teachers to Shanghai to learn how to teach Maths when we have so much good practice in our classrooms in the UK, but so little capacity to share it? How much time does a typical teacher spend learning from best practice in their own school, let alone best practice in surrounding schools. We need more non-contact time broadly across schools to enable this sort of CPD. Secondly is the belief that we can transplant a system of teaching and it will improve results, given the obvious differences in social context and key system differences such as significantly less contact time. And finally this all stems originally from PISA results which are a fairly imprecise measure of the success of an education system and have received calls from a significant number of academics to be stopped.
I was pleased and somewhat intrigued to see that NCTEM’s press release on the same day about the same £41m didn’t once mention Asia. This is the organisation that is charged with co-ordinating the Maths Hub programme. I applaud them for focussing on what it actually involves and how the money will be spent rather than trying to justify it by the explaining that we will be copying someone else. It’s a bit like the French admitting that their pop music isn’t very good and so downloading a bunch of English songs then translating them.
I don’t believe the “South Asian method” is in any way helpful as a label, but let’s just see the international comparison as something that has provided an impetus to get some investment in Maths education in the UK. At its heart, that’s what we are talking about here. Providing funding for teachers to leave their classrooms and undertake some CPD and collaborative planing. It is being rolled out gradually from one year to the next. It can be criticised for not touching enough teachers, but if we want to do it right, we should be learning from one year to the next and taking a long-term view. Momentum needs to build and short-term success should be judged by the number of schools wanting to join each year. Once we can demonstrate what can be achieved through reducing contact time and investing in CPD, who knows, maybe some government in a few years time will see that this sort of investment is a no-brainer in order to improve outcomes.
I was at an NCTEM event on Monday launching the programme to the second Cohort of 140 Primary teachers. There was an explicit focus on Year 1. Obviously the most logical place to start but are politicians going to take such a long-term view and wait 10 years until those students are sitting their PISA tests? Quite rightly they will be looking for continued improvements in educational outcomes before then. I just hope that this programme can be given enough time to build momentum before another change in direction or assessment. The 4-year commitment is a good start.