Primary education needs an overhaul if we’re to succeed on the global stage

Date posted
15 Dec 2016

When I was asked to advise the government three years ago on the new maths curriculum, I was hoping for a return to more traditional teaching methods – and to a time when we used to lead the world rather than lag behind everyone else in educational rankings.

In fact our brief was to emulate the world’s most successful school systems, including those in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Canadian state of Alberta and the US state of Massachusetts.

Although many improvements were introduced, such as the requirement for every child to know their 12 times tables by the end of year 4 and the re-introduction of long division and more complicated multiplication at primary level, sadly the finished article was watered down.

The problem was there were far too many people involved in discussing the new curriculum – many of whom had the same progressive ideas which have resulted in our educational standards taking a steep decline in the global standings.

Nearly three years on from the new primary school curriculum being introduced, we’re still lagging behind many countries.

The Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report released late last month shows we (England) are improving but are still ranked only tenth when it comes to the standard of maths and science in our 10-year-olds.

It’s still a very worrying picture for our secondary school students, with this week’s OECD report revealing we are ranked a very lowly 27th in the world ranking of maths for 15-year-olds – the lowest we’ve ever been.

So, am I hopeful the next OECD report in three years will show an improvement? Yes. The 2014 curriculum made some improvements to primary maths, so in a few years, those children should perform better at secondary school.

But am I confident we’ll significantly improve and emulate the likes of table topping Singapore? No, far from it – I envisage only a modest improvement.

There are still glaring problems with how maths is taught at primary level, which is leaving children ill-equipped to tackle secondary level maths:

  Decimals – children should be able to fully carry out operations in all four rules of number: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Requirements in the curriculum are not comprehensive. For example, children only have to divide a decimal by a whole number by the end of year 6.

  ‎Fractions – children should be taught all four rules of number – they should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide them. Children are required to do simple multiplications and divisions but the topic should be fully covered.

  Percentages – children should be able to calculate a percentage of an amount and an amount from a percentage. Currently, they are only required to work out basic percentages of an amount.

  Probability – this ‎has been left out of the curriculum altogether.

There are some basic requirements on algebra but these could be far more developed.

For our maths rankings to markedly improve we need to mirror countries such as Singapore, which teaches maths like we in the UK used to – more methodically and logically.

To me, the organisation of the curriculum is illogical – the way the curriculum is ordered could lead to a chaotic ‘jumping from subject to subject’ style of teaching. Also, parts of the curriculum are statutory and parts are non-statutory. Surely if a topic is important it should be taught to all children.

The AE Publications Maths series is deliberately logical, building one skill upon another, whereas the current primary curriculum for each year group only lists what should be covered in groupings that do not make sense. In order for young children to understand maths before they move on to secondary school there needs to be a logical progression in the way it is taught at primary level. AE Publications’ maths workbooks start with number, then move on to decimals, fractions, percentages, etc. It is a building block subject that requires mastery of the four rules of number before applying these rules to decimals and fractions.

Frankly, the current primary system in our country is deficient. The curriculum lacks rigour and is not thorough enough to get children to a level where they can sufficiently cope at secondary school. Science is not even part of the testing for primary school children and it should be.

Until we get our young children to grasp the very basics of education, many of them will continue to languish at secondary school – and as a country we’ll continue to lag behind the leading nations.