Education & Family

Chinese maths teachers help English pupils make the grade

St Gregory's Primary Academy, Stockton
Image caption The teachers from Shanghai said the Stockton classroom had a more relaxed atmosphere

A group of Chinese maths teachers have swapped their classrooms in Shanghai for primary schools in England as part of a project to improve numeracy standards.

Pupils in Shanghai came top in the international Pisa league table of numeracy skills - with 15-year-olds from the Chinese capital an average of three years ahead of counterparts in England.

The Department for Education says the teacher exchange will bring the "best teaching in the world to English schools" and lead to long-term improvements in the way the subject is taught.

Twenty-nine Chinese teachers are spending a month in English primary schools, with more teachers due to arrive next year.

This follows a trip by 70 teachers from English schools to Shanghai schools where they spent a fortnight observing lessons.

At the St Gregory's Primary Academy in Stockton, Shanghai teacher Peizhen Wang was impressed by the relaxed mood in a class of six- and seven-year-olds, which she contrasted with the more formal atmosphere of her own class.

"This school is like a family. Everyone, the students and the teachers are very happy," she told me.

'Deeper understanding'

Peizhen also liked the colourful wall displays of children's artwork, an approach she wants to take back to her own school.

During their visit, the Chinese visitors work alongside the school's teaching staff to take lessons, coach pupils and run master-classes for local primary school teachers. They use a translator when teaching from the front of the class.

One of the teachers at St Gregory's, Lucy Ashley, visited Shanghai earlier in the year.

She said: "The secret is that there is a lot more focus on the basics of maths. Children are given more time to practise, with smaller steps so there's a deeper understanding of the numbers."

After helping Lucy Ashley to lead a lesson on addition, using counters projected onto a video screen, Shanghai teacher Juanqin Cai told me pupils in Stockton were "very polite and worked hard".

But she believes Chinese schools take a more methodical approach to maths: "In the UK they learn many new topics and this is different. We will go step by step, not so quickly . We will give time so students understand what they are doing."

'Work ethic'

The English schools hosting the Chinese teachers are part of the government's network of maths hubs - centres of excellence designed to spread practice in numeracy teaching in other schools.

Janice Gorlach, head of standards at the Carmel Education Trust which includes St Gregory's, said the school was considering changing the structure of its classes in response to what it had learned from Shanghai, by introducing a shorter lesson in the morning with more time later in the day for practice and catch-up sessions for pupils needing extra help.

"By restructuring the length of time of lessons we can pick up any child that is struggling," she added.

In Shanghai, primary school maths teachers are specialists who only teach that subject, and nearly all are maths graduates.

They typically deliver only two lessons a day, with other time spent on marking and planning as well as collaboration with other maths specialists.

There are fewer specialist maths teachers in English primary schools.

Some have questioned whether importing Shanghai teaching methods will allow British pupils to catch up with their Chinese counterparts in terms of numeracy.

Dr Jon Jerrim of the Institute of Education said factors outside the classroom such as family support and culture played a big role in Chinese students' strength in the subject.

He pointed out that pupils from Chinese backgrounds also performed well in the subject even if they were at school in another country such as England or Australia.

"It's about a lot more than teaching methods. It seems to be to do with the expectations that parents hold for their children, the work ethic of the east Asian immigrant group, along with the selection of schools by the parents as well," Dr Jerrim argued.