Progressive education just doesn’t add up

Progressive education just doesn’t add up

The tale of two countries whose names both beginning with ‘S’ demonstrates perfectly how progressive education does not automatically equal success.

One of these countries is within our very own United Kingdom while the other is on the other side of the world.

Both have similar-sized populations of around 5 million but there is a gulf in their education achievements, particularly in maths.

The countries are Scotland and Singapore.

Scotland, which has a very progressive curriculum, revealed last year its worst ever set of numeracy results.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) found the number of children who met most of the expected standards in mathematics fell by 10 percentage points between 2011 and 2015.

Among pupils, in the final year of primary school, the decline was six points and for children in the second year of secondary school, the drop was two points.

Although the latter fall is not statistically significant, only 40 per cent of second-year secondary school children in Scotland now meet the benchmark.

Meanwhile, Singapore regularly tops the international league table for maths results.

In England, we are beginning to see a move away from some of the unhelpful child-centred approaches that focus on exploration in favour of structured learning, but this is still the focus in Scotland.

Also in England, more and more primary schools are beginning to adopt the Singapore maths methods and as a result, I would expect numeracy levels here at least to improve over the next few years.

But in my opinion, the changes being made in England do not go far enough and the Home Nations need to look to the Far East for answers.

So why is the Singapore method so successful and why do I think (at primary school level in particular) we should all follow their lead?

Firstly, it’s a teaching method I am very familiar with and use to teach numeracy at my tuition centres.

This way of teaching builds on all the fundamental techniques – the learning of times tables‎, addition, subtraction and so on. ‎

Teaching is conducted in a step-by-step way so that one thing naturally leads to another.

In Singapore, they teach using objects, then step things out with clear technique.

This contrasts strongly with the spiral learning approach seen in Scotland and still to a large extent in England.

This style of maths teaching jumps from subject to subject without any structure and children are moves children on to the next topic before fully grasping has just been taught.

This is why we’re failing at maths and why UK secondary school children are placed a lowly 27th in the international league table.

Understanding maths is like building a house – first the foundation, then the walls and windows and then the roof.

Whereas, the progressive approaches can be likened to a tipper lorry dumping all the materials for building a house in the middle of a building site and asking the children to start building – with the teacher there to assist in the exploration.

This leads to a chaotic learning approach that is obsessed with all the wrong things – understanding everything – even the tiniest thing – instead of learning technique and allowing understanding to fall into place along the way.

If children are not given the right foundations at primary school they will crumble at secondary school.

The Singapore Curriculum expects much more of children at primary level. For example, by year 6, children are able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions.

Calculators are not permitted in Singapore except scientific ones and these are not used until year 6 (for particular operations). under strict conditions.

Progressivism has held sway for more than 50 years in the English primary system and more recently in the Scottish, and quite frankly, the results speak for themselves.

We can make changes to the secondary school system and I welcome the changes being proposed by Theresa May.

But until we get primary education right and overturn the chaos of progressive teaching at this level, any change in the secondary school system is not going to make a huge difference to our standing in the world.