East Asian teaching method leads to ‘small but welcome improvement’ in English pupils’ maths skills

18 June 2015

Introducing a Singaporean ‘mastery’ teaching approach in English schools leads to a relatively small but welcome improvement in children’s mathematics skills and offers a potential return on investment, after one year.

The research is the first hard evidence that introducing East Asian teaching methods into a western schooling system influences children’s maths performance. The study also suggests that even a small enhancement of maths skills at age 10 yields long-term economic benefits for individuals and the economy.

The study, led by UCL Institute of Education and the University of Cambridge, evaluated the impact of ‘Maths Mastery’ (MM) – a Singaporean-inspired teaching programme ­– after it was implemented in a selection of England’s schools for one academic year. The research involved more than 10,000 pupils in Year 1 (5-6 years) and Year 7 (11-12 years) in 90 primary schools and 50 secondary schools.

After one year of MM teaching, researchers found that the Year 1 and Year 7 pupils in participating schools saw a small increase in their maths test scores compared to pupils in other schools. This was roughly equivalent to one additional month of progress over the academic year.

The results were complemented by analysis of the programme’s potential economic benefits. The researchers looked at how a small improvement in age 10 maths skills influences lifetime earnings.

The impact of higher maths scores at age 10 on salary at ages 26, 30, 34 and 38 was estimated using data from the British Cohort Study, which follows the lives of more than 17,000 people born in a single week of 1970.

By using information from the 1970 study, researchers were able to predict that an additional month of progress in maths at age 10 increases average wages by around £100 to £200 per year.

The study’s authors then conducted a cost-benefit assessment and found that the relatively low cost of running the teaching programme is likely to mean a high return on investment, when potential future earnings are taken into account.

The MM programme is radically different from standard maths teaching practice in England. Fewer topics are covered in greater depth, with every child expected to master the material before the class moves to the next part of the syllabus.

Teachers using the programme hold weekly departmental workshops, bringing them together for an hour of discussion, centred on planning the maths lessons.

East Asian teaching methods and maths curricula have long caught UK policymakers’ attention, as children from the region significantly outperform their western peers in the PISA maths assessment, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Yet until now, there has been little proof that such an approach can be successfully introduced into western education systems. Cultural and historical differences have made it difficult to establish exactly why Singaporean children are so far ahead of their English counterparts when it comes to maths.

Researchers found the mastery approach had roughly the same impact as some other high profile curriculum innovations – such as the Literacy Hour.

The study’s lead author, Dr John Jerrim, UCL Institute of Education, said: “Maths Mastery shouldn’t be seen as a ‘silver bullet’; there is no escaping that the effect of the programme was relatively small, though welcome. Yet, given the low cost per pupil, it may nevertheless be a programme worth pursuing.”

Dr Jerrim added that the study has its limitations, as it only assessed children’s maths progress after just one year and only involved 140 schools. MM is designed to have a cumulative effect, with the full benefits evident after five years.

“The programme should now be tested over a longer time period with a greater number of schools,” Dr Jerrim said. “More evidence is needed on its impact after teachers have become familiar with its novel approach, and after children have been exposed to the programme for a prolonged period of time.”

‘The causal effect of East Asian ‘mastery’ teaching methods on English children’s mathematics skills’, by John Jerrim and Anna Vignoles, is the latest working paper to be published by the Department of Quantitative Social Science at UCL Institute of Education.

The paper will be available from www.johnjerrim.com/papers after 00.01hrs on Thursday 18 June. Advance copies of the paper will be available to journalists on request.

Notes for editors

The paper includes analysis from two evaluations of the MM programme funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The cost-benefit analysis used data from the 1970 British Cohort Studyand was not funded by EEF.

Maths Masteryis delivered in England by the academy chain and charity ARK. The programme was introduced to a selection of England’s schools during the 2012/3 and 2013/4 academic years.

The Programme for International Student Assessment(PISA) is a major study of schoolchildren’s academic achievement. According to PISA, children in Singapore are second in the world for maths.

The 1970 British Cohort Studyis a nationally representative longitudinal survey of all individuals born in Great Britain during one week in 1970. The study is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studiesat UCL Institute of Education. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The UCL Institute of Educationis a world-leader specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 and 2015 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for Education worldwide. It was shortlisted in the 'University of the Year' category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its 'outstanding' initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework, 94% of our research was judged to be world class. On 2 December 2014, the Institute became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe