The Maths Lesson We Can All Learn from the Chinese

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FOR eight years I have been Headmaster of Fettes, Scotland's leading boarding school, founded in 1870, and alma mater of Opposition leader Tony Blair.

Each year, nearly half of our sixth form studies mathematics and several pupils will go on to read mathematics at Oxford or Cambridge.

Our maths department is acknowledged to be the best in Scotland and our pupils are extremely well taught. As a public boarding school, we are doing well and our intake has increased by 20 per cent over the past four years.

Part of the reason for this is that we work hard to ensure our pupils receive the finest education possible.

And yet in my years at Fettes, I have noticed a growing trend. Our pupils from the Far East consistently outperform British pupils in mathematics, even though all receive the same teaching beyond the age of 10. They have greater confidence and ability. In nearly all cases, the ability of the Chinese and Japanese pupils was marked.

I decided to research why our Chinese pupils reach such a high standard.

Last week, I went to China to study why their teaching methods produce such fine mathematicians. I am intrigued by the thought that China might have something to teach British schools about mathematics. What I have seen leads me to believe that this is the case.

STATISTICS backed up my instincts. Research published by Professor David Burghes of Exeter University in February described the maths of British school children as nothing short of a disaster. The studies compared Britain with other countries and Burghes concluded that, compared with the Far East, `we are doing appallingly.' And the older the children, the wider the gap.

I visted the Ying Hao School, 80 miles north of Guangzhou in the Guangdong province close to Hong Kong, to study their early teaching methods.

The Ying Hao school is a coeducational boarding school with 1,400 pupils, set up by a millionaire. It is only three years old. The region, which has a twinning with Strathclyde, is an explosive area with 65 million inhabitants, the sweatshop of Hong Kong.

But what I found there impressed me deeply. I believe that their teaching for pupils under 10 is now more rigorous and produces results more consistently than the teaching in Britain. They certainly have more in common with old-fashioned methods, once the cornerstone of a sound grounding in everyday mathematics, than the progressive style which is now predominant in Britain.

I was taught maths by those old-fashioned methods at The Leys School in Cambridge. We learned multiplication tables with tremendous vigour. That gave me strong accuracy in mental arithmetic, and therefore a strong foundation in maths and for science. It gave my generation a confidence that now seems to be lacking.

It may be that the whole difficulty of learning the Chinese language contributes to their confidence with figures. Learning the Chinese language is a very demanding process. They have to learn a large number of complex characters. British children learn 26 letters in upper and lower case, and 10 numbers, 0 to 9; that's 62 symbols. Chinese children, though, though must apply themselves at a very early age to be able to read and write. …