This week's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test results in mathematics for 15-year-olds again show the table dominated by East Asian countries, with Singapore top.
Last week’s Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) rankings, in tests taken by children aged 10 and 14, told a similar tale, with Singapore sweeping the board, top in both primary and secondary maths.
Meanwhile, over the last decade or so, England’s maths performances in both the Pisa and the Timss tests have shown little improvement. Those countries already ahead of England have extended their lead, some have surged past us, and others are catching up.
The merits of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-run tests are often debated but two things are clear: firstly, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and increasingly Vietnam, perform very well in the tests, and secondly, these high-performing countries are all examples of economies that have grown rapidly in recent years.
Whether cause or correlation, strong performance in maths education appears to be linked to a fast-growing economy.
The association between maths and the economy is further strengthened by research evidence, including the 2013 report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which showed that children with the best maths skills go on to earn more as adults – as much as £2,100 more per year by the time they are aged 30.
As a society, we should want our children to be better at maths not just for the sake of it but because it brings very real rewards, both for individuals and collectively.
So it makes sense to examine why these high-ranking countries, and in particular the world leader Singapore, perform so well, and to explore which aspects of their maths teaching can be adopted in classrooms here. It is hugely encouraging that the government is doing just that.
The broad approach taken to maths teaching by schools in Singapore is one of “mastery”, a pedagogy with roots in UK-based research dating back fifty years. In its simplest terms, teaching to mastery ensures that all children develop deep understanding of a mathematical concept before moving on. It builds solid foundations, step by step, so that learning is really secure.
The majority of schools in Singapore use the mastery-based maths textbook programme My Pals Are Here!, the UK edition of which is Inspire Maths.
It is built on a coherent curriculum design, its carefully structured questions give teachers – who, as in England’s primary schools, are often general teachers rather than specialist maths teachers – a secure platform from which they can extend their teaching. The textbooks are highly supportive and engaging, bringing maths to life for children.
The mastery approach that has helped Singapore and their East Asian counterparts rise to the top of the international tables is now also being used in a number of schools in England. The positive impacts of this are already beginning to be seen, and were borne out in independent research published last month by the University of Oxford.
The year-long study provided clear, compelling evidence that using a mastery textbook programme in schools in England engages children, improves the teaching of mathematics, and raises standards.
Year 1 pupils taught for two terms using the Inspire Maths textbook programme made significantly more progress than those using it for a shorter period, the study found. Teachers reported that children – as with their counterparts in Singapore – were motivated and engaged.
What’s more, the research found that Inspire Maths supported teachers’ own professional development, which in turn helped them implement the mastery approaches effectively.
So the government’s support for mastery, led by the minister of state for school standards, Nick Gibb, is to be applauded. He has committed £41 million over four years to embed a primary maths specialist teacher for the mastery programme, delivered through the regional maths hubs.
However, we hope that this welcome funding is only the start of a more long-term and substantial financial commitment from the government.
Additionally, while we now have compelling evidence that a mastery approach makes a real difference to maths classrooms in England, the research is equally clear that mastery cannot be a ‘Far East bolt-on’, and there is no quick fix way to introduce it to our schools if we want the kind of sustainable, long-term improvement seen in Singapore.
The study identifies three key challenges to address if we are to build on the progress made so far, and embed mastery as effectively in our schools as in Singapore.
Firstly, the pressure on schools in England to cover a large number of maths topics each year in the national curriculum creates a tension with the mastery approach to building solid foundations before moving on.
Secondly, classroom teachers must be supported in teaching and assessing mastery at the right pace for their children, with heads, senior management and teachers working together as a team to adapt existing school systems.
Finally, and most critically, as in Singapore, teachers in England must be supported by access to sustained professional development alongside a high-quality textbook programme.
The hugely encouraging evidence from the University of Oxford’s study shows that, with the right textbook programme combined with sustained professional development, mastery can lead to higher standards in maths teaching and learning.
If we are truly serious about raising our children’s maths achievement, we need a debate about how we can overcome these challenges to secure progress for the long term, so that mastery in maths can be part of every school’s future, and every child’s.
Jill Cornish is editorial director for primary maths at Oxford University Press