Singapore maths: How a radical new way of teaching equips UK pupils to tackle a tougher curriculum

The system, known as 'maths mastery', relies on teaching fewer subjects, but in far greater depth

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Charlotte, seven, glances at the sum on the whiteboard – 520 minus 269 – and shakes 10 little yellow squares of card out of a bag on her desk. “We’re renaming a 10 for 10 ones,” she says, swapping them for a single green stick, also made of card. The Year Three class is grappling with subtraction, although the chorus of correct answers suggests there is little struggling going on.

Downstairs, a Reception class has been puzzling over which of two baskets of bananas the pupils would choose if really hungry: one with five bananas, or one with only two?

With their handy props, the pupils at Three Bridges primary school, in Southall, west London, are at the front line of what promises to be a revolution in mathematics teaching: maths, Singapore-style.

Hundreds of head teachers across England and Wales are turning to Singapore maths to help pupils cope with the new, tougher national curriculum. The system, similar to its Shanghai cousin, relies on teaching fewer subjects, but in far greater depth.

It is also known as “maths mastery” because it relies on pupils mastering each step before moving on. It relies on text books, anathema to British classrooms for the past generation. Barely one in 10 schools uses text books, but that number is tipped to soar. One Singapore-style maths publisher, Maths No Problem, has seen demand for its books increase six-fold since the last academic year, and has had to reprint the whole primary series twice this term.

Jill Cornish, of Oxford University Press, which publishes a rival Singapore-style text book called Inspire Maths, said: “We’re finding word of mouth is driving the buzz about the approach. Schools that use it are sharing their enthusiasm about it.”

Charlotte, at Three Bridges, which began introducing elements of Singapore-style teaching nearly three years ago, is a fan of the system, mainly because she likes the props. Those bits of card are among trays and trays of objects in the school’s new maths storeroom. “They make it a bit easier to explain,” adds Charlotte, highlighting another key tenet of the Singapore way: getting students, from Reception age up, to teach their friends as they go along.

This means teachers will stop streaming and mix up different abilities instead. Or, as a Department for Education spokesperson puts it: “We expect the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace.”

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Pupils take on Singapore-style maths (Teri Pengilley)

Emma Valério, maths co-ordinator at Three Bridges, has a ready reply to parents who fear high-flyers will be held back. “We used to set across year groups, so Year Three pupils would be learning with Year Four. I had children who’d been accelerated, but their number sense was poor. Now our focus is enrichment, not acceleration. We give them extra tasks to enrich their skills. True mathematicians aren’t the ones given the next level of maths; they develop their own.”

And it hasn’t held back students in Singapore, which overhauled its maths teaching in the Eighties. The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts Singapore’s 15-yearolds in second place for their maths skills, behind Shanghai’s; their British peers are in 26th place.

Early results here look promising: a recent study by the Institute of Education at the University of London and the University of Cambridge looked at the progress made after one year by pupils studying under the maths mastery scheme at 90 primary and 50 secondary schools: the effects were “small but positive”.

Steve McCormack, at the government-funded National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, said: “We’re in the early stages of something that could take up to a decade to bear real fruit. But the potential is huge.”

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