Singaporean education guru Yeap Ban Har helps to train teachers during a lesson at Three Bridges primary school in Southall
At Three Bridges Primary School in Southall, west London, a class of mostly Somali and Indian pupils is being taught Singapore-style maths in English.
The subject is fractions, and the room is a hubbub of voices as the pupils debate how to divide a ribbon equally among four friends.
Rather than a unique cross-cultural experiment, this type of lesson is increasingly common among British teachers seeking to emulate Singapore’s striking success in the international Pisa tests.
While Singapore has risen to the top of the OECD’s global education rankings, the UK has slid downwards, prompting hand-wringing by the British government about how to boost standards and a frantic search for the secrets of the Singaporean model.
The result has been a £41m injection of public funds for Asia-style maths teaching, and a programme to adapt Singaporean maths textbooks for use in English classrooms.
Nick Gibb, schools minister, has hailed the introduction of Singaporean influences as a “renaissance” in maths teaching.
But some education experts are more sceptical, asking whether it is possible to transplant a foreign method into an English regime with vastly different cultural expectations and school systems.
Yeap Ban Har says: ‘[Pupils] are seeing that learning maths is challenging other people’s ideas, or agreeing with them if they’re correct’
Jeremy Hannay, the headmaster at Three Bridges, believes passionately in the project. He travelled to Singapore three years ago, visited six schools, and came back to the UK converted.
“We were creating kids who could pass tests but we weren’t giving children a life-long love of mathematics, which in my professional philosophy is just not good enough,” he said.
A key tenet of the Singaporean style is that rather than the teacher standing at the front of the classroom and “dictating” theory, he or she wanders round the room, facilitating a discussion in which pupils work out mathematical principles for themselves.
The lesson always starts with a problem that can be expressed through concrete props, such as a piece of ribbon, cut-out pictures or wooden blocks.
Pupils progress to more abstract theories, and only express the problems as mathematical formulas at the end, when they fully understand the underlying ideas.
There is no streaming of pupils by ability. Instead, weaker students must all reach a basic standard before the class moves on to the next concept. In the meantime, the more able pupils explore the same concept in more depth.
In a recent lesson at Three Bridges, David O’Connell, a year-six teacher, asked the class: “What would you call the quarter that has been divided into three parts?”
One boy instantly held up his hand, saying: “You would label it twelfths.” Another chipped in: “I think it’s thirds”. During the conversation, Mr O’Connell interjected with more questions, and encouraged pupils to challenge each other, but never told them “that’s right” or “that’s wrong”.
A pupil works on franctions at Three Bridges © Tolga Akmen
The theory is that no one is shamed for expressing their ideas, and children learn from their mistakes, rather than feeling demoralised. But on the way to finding the right answer, there are often many misleading ones.
When asked to discuss ideas among their tables of six, one particularly confident boy expounded some distinctly dubious theories about fractions. Several of his peers had already started writing his words verbatim in their workbooks before the teacher arrived to set them on the right course.
Yeap Ban Har, a maths guru from Singapore’s Institute of Education who now works with the company Maths — No Problem! on training teachers around the world in the Singaporean style, argues that the method encourages scepticism but should not allow incorrect ideas to flourish.
“If the teacher is just ‘telling’ them everything, the pupils become passive and they develop the mindset that learning maths is a set thing,” he said. “But now they are seeing that learning maths is challenging other people’s ideas, or agreeing with them if they’re correct.”
However, critics suggest implementing unfamiliar teaching methods can be problematic.
Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, a UK maths literacy charity, said while he fully supports the theories behind Singapore maths teaching, “there is not enough funding to get the ideas properly integrated, and we are trying to ‘retro-fit’ a new approach with primary teachers who are not necessarily confident in their own maths ability”.
He also suggested that cultural factors are contributing to low standards.
The ‘Maths – No Problem’ textbook that the Three Bridges children were working on
“Unlike in Singapore, it is socially acceptable in the UK to say ‘I can’t do maths’, almost as a badge of honour,” he said. “We have a wider population, including parents, where levels of numeracy are remarkably low.
“Half of all working-age adults are at primary school levels,” he added. “So suggesting that the Singapore method is a silver bullet is utter nonsense.”
At Three Bridges, Mr Hannay evangelises about a “revolution” in maths and an improvement in test scores that has brought his pupils from baseline levels to “well above the national average”. But he accepts that achieving such results has involved changes that go far beyond maths classes.
One of the hallmarks of the Singaporean system is high levels of autonomy for individual teachers, who are given far more time than their UK peers to plan lessons.
“We adopted [these] cultural ideas and we don’t scrutinise and monitor our teachers to death,” Mr Hannay said.
He adds that he and his staff have also adopted Singapore’s “non-negotiable baseline” mentality that every single child will meet a basic standard. Yeap Ban Har agrees that, rather than any particular teaching method, is the key to the question of how to raise standards
“I think generally the common thinking we have in Singapore is that doing well in school, not just in maths, is just how much work you put into it, how much opportunity you’re given,” he said. “Yes, that’s the answer!”