Singapore maths effect is small but potentially powerful, study finds

A Singaporean “mastery” approach to maths improves children’s skills and could provide a long-term economic benefit, new research suggests.

The improvement seen in schools using the Mathematics Mastery programme is equivalent to one month’s additional progress, but a new analysis of the potential economic benefits of the programme predicts that even an extra month of progress at age 10 could increase adults’ average wages by around £150 to £200 a year.

Interest in the way maths is taught in East Asia has been sparked by the success of Shanghai, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings.

The Mathematics Mastery programme, which is based on teaching methods from Singapore, has been adopted by the Ark academy chain and was evaluated by John Jerrim, reader in educational and social statistics at the UCL Institute of Education and Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge.

The programme involves studying fewer topics in greater depth, with every child expected to reach a certain level before the class progresses on to the next part of the syllabus. There is also greater emphasis placed on problem-solving skills.

The study of the impact of Mathematics Mastery in 83 primaries and 44 secondaries was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). It finds that the average “per pupil” cost of the intervention is £131 for primary pupils and £50 for secondary pupils in the first year, with costs likely to reduce in future years.

A complementary study by Dr Jerrim and Professor Vignoles, which has been published today as a UCL Institute of Education working paper, carries out a cost-benefit analysis on the original findings. This latest study was not funded by the EEF.

The report points out that simplistic attempts to “borrow policy” from other countries can run into problems because of cultural and economic differences.

But it concludes that Mathematics Mastery does show promise as a way of raising achievementin English schools. The size of the effect is similar to the Literacy Hour, which was introduced to English primary schools in the 1990s.

The report states that while “the small effect size suggests it is unlikely that widespread introduction of this particular East Asian teaching method would springboard Western countries like England to the top of the Pisa educational achievement rankings”, implementing this teaching method could be a worthwhile investment, because a combination of several small but efficient interventions can have a large impact overall.

It recommends that the programme is tested over a longer time and in a greater number of schools.

Speaking to TES, Dr Jerrim said: “The reasons why the East Asian countries are top of Pisa include the huge role of culture, but even if culture does play a large role it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn some things from those countries.

“That is the point of taking this idea and trialling it over here, to see what impact it does have. I’m not saying it is ready to be rolled out across the whole country. But it is showing signs of promise and I think we need to go out and do a bit more evaluation on it over the long term.”

David Reynolds, professor of educational effectiveness at the University of Southampton, who designed the National Numeracy Strategy for England under the last Labour government, agreed that the results looked promising. This is a really important study,” he said. “It suggests that Asian methods can be successfully transplanted to the UK and that a combination of refusing to tolerate failure and high-quality teacher planning is effective in maths. But the next step must be to try all the components of the Asian method together to see the possible effects in bigger samples of schools.”

However, Jeremy Hodgen, professor of maths education at the University of Nottingham, added: “It is important to remember that many of the effective strategies used in the Pacific Rim were originally ‘borrowed’ from England. For example, Fong Ho Kheong, the first lead author of the renowned My Pals are Here primary maths textbooks in Singapore, learned his craft when taking his PhD at King’s College London.”

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