Progressing up PISA, Equals sign interpretations, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam are joined once again by Tim Oates CBE, to find out whether England is actually getting better in Maths. Has the significant need for subject knowledge specialists been recognised in policy? Has Covid been used as an excuse to revert to old-school ways of teaching? Plus, Tim takes us through the timeline of England’s policy journey.
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Welcome back to another episode of The School of School podcast. It's with great delight that I can introduce our wonderful guest that we have today, Tim Oates. Tim, what a pleasure it is to have you joining Andy and Robin, the usual gang here on the School of School podcast. Thank you very much for your time. Can you just, for listeners that perhaps have not met you before, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. Thanks very much indeed for the invitation. It's a great pleasure to talk with you today. So I'm Tim Oates. I'm group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge University Preston Assessment. That's a really big non-teaching department of Cambridge University, about 6,000 people, providing assessment and learning services, not only to England, but around the world. And I've worked there since 2006 and really focusing on research process, but also particularly comparison of education processes around the world.
So I've been fortunate. Thank you for that. I've been fortunate to hear you speak before. I've read a lot of what you've written and one of the questions that is a simple question, and I don't know how simple it is to answer, is England getting better at maths? I've been over here for close to 20 years, even though I'm from New Zealand originally. So I've been involved in maths in England for some time and it's just, yeah, like I said, a simple question. So is England getting better at maths?
It's a great one because this kind of an English cultural tradition of modesty and actually talking ourselves down. There was a very amusing climber who gave a lecture in Cambridge who said, "You have loads of different nationalities at the base of a mountain aspiring to climb it in the Great Ranges. And contrary to the high fiving and incredible optimism of many of the other teams, the English team are always saying, well, maybe. And they tend to get up it." Now the problem is that a lot of commentators have talked down what's occurred in England over the last 20 years. So we know from our own research work, domestic research, and from our participation in the big transnational studies, particularly since 2000, with the advent of PISA, that we have a problem of very high within school variation and between school variation in our nation. And it's a big system of course, and it's got a lot of diversity in schools.
It's been quite difficult to improve attainment in mathematics. We had an attempt to, in the 1990s, through the literacy and numeracy strategies. Those provided very close guidance to schools in terms of improvement and some improvement was affected. But we didn't begin really to see the kind of improvement we wanted to see in terms of closing some of those differences in those gaps. Just prior to COVID, three things were happening. Firstly, the impact of social background and prior attainment on attainment at 16 was beginning to reduce. In other words, we were improving equity. That's the first thing. The second thing is, and this sounds like no big deal at all, in 2018, PISA, our literacy score, held steady. Why now should we chat or be proud of that?
Well, because our relative international position improved dramatically. Literacy is declining dramatically around the world, and it's been in speed of reading and comprehension has been in sharp declines since the sixties in the US. There's something quite fundamental going on in terms of literacy. We managed to hold it steady. We'd had a big emphasis on phonics in reading and it seemed to pay off. We held steady. In mathematics, we improved. And that's good.
And what I think is also important is we can read off the timeline in the improvement to some interventions, and I can talk about those interventions, but quite a few commentators say everything was terrible before COVID and got worse. No, that's not true. The policies that we had in place from 2010 were working in reading, in mathematics, and in having a new national curriculum from 2014, it was paying off.
It's 2014 to 2018, is that long enough to see a difference in education? How long does it take to see a difference?
Oh yeah. This is interesting, Andy. I thought for a very, very long time, sort of 20 or 30 years, I've been reviewing education around the world, that things get bad very quickly and become better very slowly. But actually I've seen interventions which can improve things extremely swiftly. Interestingly, those organisations that are dealing with interrupted education in countries that have gone through crisis, accelerated learning can quite dramatically improve the attainment of individual children. Now, if targeted programmes, carefully structured, can improve individuals, well, you can scale this up to whole schools or up to regions or up to a nation. And I think that's what happened from 2010. There was real focus on evidence-based processes. And we can run through the specifics of what happened in mathematics. And you can read it off in the timeline.
I'd love to hear what processes are working because just recently there have been some articles in Canada about our school system and certain provinces that are, they're on the decline in terms of their achievement in mathematics. So let's hear what's working. Let's hear some good news, Tim.
Okay, well I'll kick off with one interesting thing. There's been quite an emphasis by a set of politicians on the memorization of times tables. That sounds terribly traditional, doesn't it? And of course, no highly progressive nation, which comes top of in the top ranks of PISA, would emphasise that as part of their mass curriculum apart from Estonia.
I mean, Estonia is being held up as this progressive competence-based forward thinking system. And England is held up as this backward-looking knowledge-based system, which is being dragged down by the traditional views of politicians. Except I've read the curricula, the national curriculum of both of those nations. They're almost identical. Both of them insist on the memorization of times tables at a particular point in primary. Why? Because you have to, we know from Kurt Fisher's work, that some things in maths, you have to commit to long-term memory. So they're there, immediately available as cognitive resources, for complex problem solving, for solving, mathematically expressing verbal problems, for example. If you suddenly have to reconstruct all those number of relationships, well you would've forgotten what it is that you're supposed to be doing.
So this seeming, everybody labels Estonia as this highly progressive, forward thinking, competence-based system and contrast it with England. In fact, they're exactly the same in what they insist on in terms of memorization for the purposes of complex problem solving. Now that's quite interesting. Now what England did was from 2010 onwards, while we were revising the national curriculum, there was also an initiative to look at some of the highest quality maths education around the world and looked at Singapore, looked at Shanghai. Interestingly, there was an emphasis on the idea of having high quality learning materials available to all teachers. So there was an examination of maths textbooks. There was a process put in place to identify the resources that the state would recommend to schools. And Singapore Maths was one of the ones which was first identified as being of great benefit because of its structure and its approach to verbal problems and so on.
But at the same time, the kind of teaching approaches that were adopted in Shanghai were identified as being of value. So the government funded a series of hub schools, 48 hub schools. There are about 20,000 schools in England. 48 hub schools were set up. They were to be the focus of staff development and the preparation of high quality evidence-based programmes. The NCETM, the National Centre for Excellence of Teaching and Mathematics, was responsible for running these hub schools. The hub schools were also accompanied by a big programme, an ambitious programme, of exchange with Shanghai teachers. Teachers from England went to Shanghai to observe lessons. Teachers from Shanghai came to England to observe and teach in our schools, and it worked.
Now, there was an incident, a politically difficult incident, some of the Shanghai teachers taught in a school in Hampshire. It was reported on the BBC. It was a bit troublesome because there was a bit of resistance in the school, a bit of problem from the management and some low level behaviour problems amongst the kids that the Shanghai teachers typically don't have to deal with. That's usually dealt with by management. The programme, the BBC programme, was quite critical. Interestingly though, in the two weeks of teaching, which these Shanghai teachers did, even under not very supportive circumstances from the senior management in the school, the kids' performance accelerated in mathematics. Now that was a very interesting incident.
What happened in the network as a whole, the 48 hub schools, supported by the National Centre, excellent work by Dr. Debbie Morgan, was that those schools supported, even in the first few years, over 11,000 schools in changing, evaluating, adapting their pedagogic approach, taking onboard the kind of dialogic teaching, which occurs in Shanghai schools, using high quality learning materials to enhance their mass pedagogy. Now that intervention coincides with the timeline of the improvement overall in England's performance. So Robin, I think that gives some real insights into how one can improve at classroom level, school level, system level, you have to have a policy drive, you have to use a highly evidence-based approach. You have to construct it meticulously, have it managed well and support schools in the implementation. It's paid off massively for England. Set back by COVID, but then most nations have been set back by COVID. We are going to have to work to achieve our previous improvement in performance.
One of the things that, I don't want to jump too much off topic here, because I think you're absolutely right. I mean, I think the change that's happened in England is very, very substantial. I mean, I haven't been in education as long as you have or as long as Adam has, but I was quite surprised. Once the momentum started going and it started, and I remember, I actually remember meeting you in 2011 where you were still doing some research on the national curriculum for the government at the time. And we met at one of the large academies in London. We had a discussion and I remember Amanda Steelman was there and Dr. Yapp was there and there were a few other people there. To me that was the catalyst in my mind. And probably you were working on it for a lot longer than I was, but that's when it seemed like it became evident to me that there was a huge shift.
And then it was remarkable how quickly it rolled out systemically throughout England. There seemed to be some real momentum there. And I believe you. I believe that that has had a huge impact on why we've done remarkably in, or at least markedly better in 2018 in PISA. What I'm concerned about right now though, is that with COVID, and we seem to be almost taking a step backwards in some of the things that we're doing now, and there seems to be kind of almost a panic situation where we're like, oh, the issue is whatever, it's this or it's that, or whatever. And we're forgetting everything that we've learned before and we're going back to maybe redoing some of the things we were doing wrong previously and using COVID as an excuse for that. Am I foolish in thinking that or do you get a sense that that might be happening?
I think there's a risk of that. I think the level of disruption which the education system, children and teachers, families and the nation has experienced as a result of COVID, just cannot be underestimated. That sounds like doom mongering, doesn't it? I mean, the trouble is that we've got one message that we want to return to normal because that would be a good thing in terms of culture and the economy and so on. But on the other hand, it runs the risk of underestimating the extent of the impact that there's been for individual kids and for schools. We've done a lot of work on COVID recovery processes and we've done that in the wake of what we think is a very thorough understanding of the way in which children and schools have been impacted by COVID. It's been highly individualised, it's widely distributed, and it's very variable between individuals that that's a very challenging public policy issue.
We mustn't forget the kind of things we were learning prior to pandemic, Andy, we really mustn't. So I remember the discussions you were talking about. Let's just take a simple idea like practise in mathematics for example. So when we did the first draught of the national curriculum, the minister and I sat down with a mathematics national curriculum, and the word practise had been red penned by the civil servants. Every instance of the word practise. There were over 40 instances of the word red penned. Why? Our teachers say that practise is dull and boring. You can't do that. Sorry, what? No, practise is essential in mathematics. We know that from Singapore, we know that from Shanghai. We know that from high quality, transnational comparison of high quality maths curricula. Now what happened was that there was a kind of relentless focus on that evidence to reassert, not boring repetition, which does not result in learning, but highly systematically varied practise, which does result in high quality learning and mathematics.
So instead of just exceeding to the common perception of practise as dry, dull, and boring, it was practise as rich, varied, engaging and critical to the acquisition of elaborated concepts in mathematics around number and number relationships. Now, it was relentless because you had to kind of operate against the dominant culture and the dominant discourse. But we got there and we established it in the kind of programmes that you support and the programmes that the state supported and the precision of it, knowing that we are talking about a particular form of practise and not another, was central to it.
I wonder, Tim, because one of the things that I think underpins this is teacher subject knowledge. And so much what I read when it either relates to Singaporean teachers or teachers in Shanghai is the depth of their understanding about how mathematical ideas are formed, progressed, supported, challenged, all of those sorts of things. And coming into schools with teachers who may not have that, primary school teacher wasn't a specialist in a given subject. Two things really. One has there been any policy shift so the training of teachers is the significance of subject knowledge is recognised in the training of teachers. And the second thing is, I suppose it's just to touch on what Andy just said, any subsequent changes that are made, we're asking teachers to make them and deliver them in the classrooms. Whereas I think the more you learn about the subject itself, or this probably true for any subject in schools, the more you realise there's a phenomenal amount to know in order to do this well.
And so I suppose those two points, the first one is has there been a shift in the teacher training to recognise the level of knowledge that's needed in order to, I don't know, deliver the curriculum as well as it can be? And the second part, is it at all helpful changing mid stride post COVID, understanding the challenges that we face, but when there's already such a massive challenge just to deliver a really good curriculum, well, in the first instance?
Well, I think the policy from 2010 of encouraging this international exchange, setting up the hub schools and having it managed by mathematical educators in the National Centre for Excellence for instituting mathematics was a really powerful model because it was really predicated on the idea that you had to have professional development. It incorporated the selection and provision of high quality materials, but really it had professional development at its heart. Currently, initial teacher training in England is in a bit of flux and there are quite a few changes being put in place in terms of the role of schools, the role of universities and so on. But focusing on that intervention in mathematics, it was fundamentally about professional development to existing teachers. And we saw an improvement, nationally, quickly, Andy, it was a rapid and significant improvement, which is absolutely great.
Is it essential to have good discipline knowledge? Yes. My own view is you have to have teachers with solid discipline knowledge, but they also do need to be supported by high quality materials, both paper and digital. I'll finish on something which I've spoken about many, many times, but it's amusing and it's true still because I was talking about it with some teachers very recently, primary school teachers, the misunderstanding of the equal sign. So I still go into primary schools and teachers are still teaching it as getting, you add this to this and you get that, the equal sign is getting something. So of course that big empty space where the answer should be is intimidating both for the teacher and to the child. Well, what I put in there, how can I do that and get something? But if you teach it as truly the equal sign, the answer's already in the question. Well, that bit, that empty space is the same as what's on the other side.
And so it's often taught through a complete misconception in primary schools, the equal sign is not taught properly. It's a conceptual misunderstanding and it impedes both the teaching practise of the teachers and the growing understanding of the children. And that's still true in some schools I go into. We have to tackle that kind of fundamental through our ongoing professional development. And then we'll be getting somewhere. The initiative from 2010 did a lot to disturb those misconceptions amongst teachers and build up their professional understanding through professional development exchange and materials. That's what we need to do, I think.
So Tim, looking forward, knowing what we know, having experienced what we've experienced with pandemics and everything else, if you were to go to just make a suggestion to a teacher right now, what should they focus on to become a better teacher, to keep the momentum going, what would you say?
It's always difficult to reduce it to one thing, Andy, but I think the one thing we've looked at in diagnosing the nature of the problems from COVID and recommending solutions is that the solutions for dealing with the problems, which COVID affected children are experiencing, are fortunately the very same ones that we see that lie behind genuine sustained improvement in education anyway. And that is attending to the way in which each and every child's understanding is building up, having rich oral exchange with individual children and with groups of children, constantly asking questions which reveal conceptions, understanding and misconceptions, using those misconceptions to scaffold and support the learning of each child and the learning of the group.
And when you have that, and also when you have, it sounds very reductive, but production, children speaking a lot about their ideas, writing a lot about their ideas, exchanging a lot about their ideas, it makes their thinking available to them, their thinking available to other children and makes clear their misconceptions and conceptions to the teacher. And when you have those kind of learning activities going on in a learning community, a group of children supported by a teacher, you are likely to have children who all of whom will achieve more.
Tim, you're one of the few people who gets to spend a lot of time with pupils, teachers and policy makers, and you're quite influential, obviously, in making policies around the world in education. Same question, but for policy makers.
Yeah, I mean, very often I will say, look, you've got to examine the complex relationships that exist between curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, didactics, inspections, school funding materials. And they say, "Ah, yes, yes, yes, I understand it now. You've got to have coherence between those things, but what's the one thing I need to do?" And it's like, no, no, no. It's about actually making sure all of those things are right and line. That's the public policy challenge in education. And fortunately, some systems do it really well and some politicians do it brilliantly. There was an education minister in Thailand who we talked about this concept of curriculum coherence, making sure that each element is right, making sure they line up, and he took that complexity to his period of office. And during that time, and from that time, it led to a real improvement in the coherence of the education system and in the performance of the education system. So if there's one thing, it's retained complexity, which isn't one thing at all.
Tim, thank you so much once again. Yeah, thanks for joining us.
Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you for joining us on the School to School podcast.