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

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

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 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 table 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.

There were just far too many people who had their hands in the new curriculum – many of whom had the same progressive ideas, which have resulted in our education standards taking a steep decline in the global standings.

And nearly three years on from the new curriculum being introduced at primary school level we’re still lagging behind many countries.

The Trend in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) report released late last month shows we (England) are improving but 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 hope 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 to 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 carry out operations in all four rules of multiplication, subtraction, division and adding fully. 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 also 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 also 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 improve markedly we need to mirror countries such as Singapore, which teaches maths like we in the UK used to – more methodically and logically.

The organisation of the curriculum to me 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? I have written a series of books to help improve the skills of primary children. These are deliberately logical, building one skill upon another whereas the curriculum for each year group just lists what should be covered in groupings that do not make sense. Our books start with a number, then move on to decimals, fractions, percentages etc. How can we expect young children to understand maths if there is no logical progression in the way it is taught? It is a building block subject, that requires mastery of the four rules of number before moving on to the four rules of 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 cope sufficiently 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 far behind the leading nations.