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Chris McGovern: Why does China thrash us at maths? They teach their kids to count


Education minister, Liz Truss, has recently flown off to Shanghai in search of a mathematical ‘philosopher’s stone’. She wants to discover how Chinese pupils score so highly in international maths tests for 15-year-olds. They are three years ahead of youngsters in this country.

Any effort by ministers to work out how to improve educational standards is to be welcomed. However, one does wonder why we need to learn from the Chinese such common sense as children needing to master basic arithmetic, including tables and number bonds, if they are to make any progress in maths. It is, after all, blindingly obvious to pretty much everyone outside those sacred temples of the education experts and teacher trainers that children need these basic building blocks to succeed.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s teachers did not have to be told the obvious by ministers. And that generation of Brits came out around the top of their OECD international league tables for both numeracy and literacy.

Ministers would benefit more from a history lesson than from the geography field trip to eastern Asia. The reason we were so successful in those days was because  we did the simple things fairly well, even if a lot of the teaching seems to us, now, to have been unadventurous. The fact is most children love routine and repetition. They enjoy completing lots of ‘sums’.

It consolidates basic skills, just as learning phonics, the sound of letters and letter blends, is a building block for literacy. Phonics is finally making a come back and it is high time we returned to the building blocks of maths too.

How extraordinary that our National Curriculum has not required youngsters to learn the full range of tables (2 to 12) until the age of 11. This is about to change with a new National Curriculum expecting mastery of arithmetical tables by the age of nine. This is a start but, probably, not early enough for many children.

When I taught maths to seven-year-olds in a private schools I expected my class to have mastered these basic building blocks before they moved on to the next school year. This brings me back to Shanghai and, indeed, to those other educational ‘tigers’ from Asia-Pacific. The richest and most successful parents in Shanghai, in Singapore, in Hong Kong are queuing up to send their offspring to British schools. I am referring, of course, to those schools in the private sector that never jettisoned the common sense that so benefitted the world-beating generation of their grandparents.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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