Maths teaching in the UK adds up after all

20th January 2012 at 00:00

If you believe the headlines, teachers in England are dunces at maths. Titles of articles in one of Britain's most popular daily newspapers last year included "Why our maths teachers are among the worst in the world" and "Maths teaching is so bad that teenagers leave school dangerously ignorant".

After headlines like those, it can be a surprise to discover that England's maths results are actually the envy of much of Europe. Not only that, but schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland often try teaching tougher maths subjects than nearly all our neighbours.

These findings all come from a major report on maths teaching published by Eurydice, the European Commission's research network for education (see pages 4-7). It noted that England was one of only a few nations to see "significantly higher achievement than the average in participating European Union countries" in international maths tests. It also found that England, Wales and Northern Ireland were among a small number of countries that began teaching certain, trickier topics to pupils before they reached secondary school - and the only ones in the EU to begin geometry, probability and algebra in primary school.

(The comparatively early stage at which pupils in England start algebra would certainly surprise The Economist, which sniffed last year that GCSE maths did not even ask teachers to "cram the beginnings of Euclidean geometry down (pupils') throats". In fact, that appears to be primary teachers' job here.)

However, the report is no cause for complacency. While England may do well by European standards, it still lags behind many countries in the international tables, notably Singapore and Hong Kong.

The positive news is that the Eurydice report offers several solutions. The researchers have looked across Europe and seen what works - and the answers are not as retro as, say, "ban calculators".

So good news on maths teaching, plus good advice from a European institution? It is no surprise at all that the report itself failed to make the headlines.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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