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How the maths problem in the UK can be fixed

By 20/11/2018No Comments
by Dr Stephen Curran PhD, MA, BA(Hons), B(Mus), PGCE, Dip.RSA, MCollT
Founder of AE Tuition and AE Publications

Since the late 1950s Britain has had a progressive educational approach which is now being questioned. This approach has greatly affected the teaching of mathematics in our schools. There are many positive things that have come from this progressive approach, such as pupil-centred learning and a focus on the needs of the child. However, it has also included a spiral curriculum which places more emphasis on understanding rather than solid technique, and haphazard organisational principles in the process of teaching maths. In a metaphorical sense, the ‘tail has wagged the dog’ – children start with a problem and discover a way to solve it rather than being taught a mathematical technique and then being set exercises to reinforce this technique.

What was happening in schools?
Another way of characterising the progressive approach is as follows: a dumper truck arrives on a building site and unloads all its contents. Workers with no expertise are then supposed to construct a house from these contents, assisted by expert builders when necessary. It is a chaotic learning process with no real methodology but, through discovery and experiment, the workers eventually find a way to build the house. This is a metaphor for what was happening in primary schools even after the education reforms of the 1980s. At this time, the national curriculum was very confusing and lacked logical structure.

‘Old school’ is the solution
A return to a more traditional approach to teaching mathematics is needed in primary schools. The new curriculum introduced just a few years ago was a step in the right direction, with a clear structure and an emphasis on teaching basic technique. I was proud to be involved in the creation of this new curriculum as a government advisor. However, it needed to go much further and mirror itself on the success of the Singapore curriculum which, incidentally, is very similar to how British schools used to teach before the advent of progressive approaches.

A strong foundation is needed for children’s education
Maths is a system and it must be taught as such. To return to our metaphor, what really needs to happen is that each part of the house should be constructed in the correct order – first the foundations, then the walls, windows and roof, followed by the internal furnishings. To fully comprehend maths, a system of understanding needs to be constructed piece by piece in the child’s mind. In other words, the teaching of maths should be sequential: firstly, basic number facts, followed by the four rules of numbers, decimals and fractions, percentages, ratios and so on. This is how the AE tuition centres operate and how AE Publications’ workbooks are designed.

AEP’s workbooks support a child through each stage of the system with their ‘how-to’ approach. It is normal for parents to feel they have gaps in their own education; the ‘how-to’ workbooks are there to guide the parent and the child, whilst still following the national curriculum.

Free thinking is still there in the national curriculum
All educationalists, whether they are on the progressive or traditional wing of education, want to encourage free thinking and creative skills in children. I am not against progressive approaches, but I want to ensure children have grasped basic technique and have a structured understanding of the maths before they move on to secondary education.

Ultimately, we all aim for children to be able to solve problems and have inquiring minds. The real debate is about the route we take, and I believe that firm foundations in maths are essential, particularly in primary school. It is very hard to solve numeracy problems in secondary school as children are moving between teachers and there is little opportunity for intervention. This is compounded by the fact that subjects such as physics, chemistry and design & technology require mathematical competency for children to succeed.

The AE Publications range of maths books for Years 3 to 6 comprises over 30 titles.
It has been developed over 20 years and ensures children are taught solid mathematical technique. These books, if used diligently by parents with their children, have the potential to transform children’s mathematical skills in the United Kingdom. They contain a clear and structured process of learning that moves from subject to subject in a logical way and are useful in preparing children for SATs tests
and 11-plus examinations. Most of all they provide a way to ensure that the majority of children can succeed at primary level.

Dr Stephen Curran PhD, MA, BA(Hons), B(Mus), PGCE, Dip.RSA, MCollT,
has 30 years’ experience in both the secondary and primary sectors.
Stephen is the founder of AE Tuition and AE Publications, supporting children through 11-plus and SATs exams, and he is also a former advisor to the UK Government.