Sunday, 12 May 2013

Singapore Maths

A few years ago, I lived in Singapore for 18 months, and it was obvious that the local kids were far ahead of British children from the very start of their schooling, at least in Maths and Science. A series of five international studies from 1995 to 2011 has shown that 13-year-old Singaporeans are consistently achieving better results than the rest of the world's kids. These results have been backed up by OECD studies of 15-year-old children. Anecdotally, my 6-year-old boy, who had excelled at an international school following the English Early Years Programme, was stumped by Maths problems aimed at similar-aged local children.

This is a fairly recent development. Before 1980, Singapore imported its textbooks and relied on English examination boards to set its secondary school curriculum. Many people have argued that the English GCSE Maths syllabus has become easier over the past 25 years, whereas Singapore's O-level has retained its rigour. Certainly, UK schoolchildren do not compare well to their South-East Asian contemporaries in any study I have seen.

Of course, the National Curriculum is not the only game in town for English parents. There is also the Common Entrance Exam, which is a superset of the National Curriculum intended to stretch the 7% of children who are competing to enter elite private schools at 11 or 13 years of age. Still, the syllabus for 13+ Common Entrance is a pale shadow of the one used for children in Singaporean schools.

UK politicians have noted these problems, and Michael Gove has made encouraging noises. However, he stands little chance of success as there is no cross-party agreement, and the teaching unions will oppose any change to the status quo. There is an argument that making Primary Maths more difficult will unfairly benefit children from wealthier backgrounds, and will discriminate against families from the North of England. Unfortunately, that's an argument against any form of education for children, which will always benefit those with supportive families.

One of my friends has a very sensible attitude towards national politics, which is that he forces himself not to care. The only thing that matters is his family, and if his nation wants slowly to destroy its children's education, it's not his job to stand in the way. It sounds defeatist, but if parents want their children to receive a decent standard of Maths education, it will have to take place outside school.

My daughter is about to reach the age of four, and it seems like the right moment to make choices about her education. She's already started a phonics course, and we'll start handwriting practice in earnest in a few months. I've also decided that she should try to keep up with Singaporean children her own age. This means half an hour a day, five days a week of Maths study.

Reception Maths (age 4/5 years)

There is a UK distributor of Singapore Maths named MathsNoProblem that stocks EarlyBird Kindergarten books. You only really need the two textbooks costing £22 each, but there are also optional activity books and 10 readers. The readers are only available from the US distributor.

The course uses a lot of material from around the house, together with some suggested manipulatives, which are available from Amazon: multilink cubes, various counters, a hundred board, a simple balance, and a clock with geared hands.

Grade 1 Maths (age 5/6 years)

The first year of Singapore Primary Maths 3rd Edition textbooks and workbooks will cost £42. Make sure you get the 3rd edition, not the US or "Standards" editions, which use American units and spellings. There are also a lot of manipulatives that need to be bought. To be honest, it's cheaper to order the manipulatives from a specialist home-school supplier in the US such as Rainbow Resource Center. There are also additional resources available, such as the Extra Practice and Challenging Word Problems books.

After the first year of Primary Maths, it's worthwhile buying the Home Instructors' guide, or the more expensive Teachers' Guide, to help you plan lessons.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Teaching your child to read

I know plenty of parents in England, but I haven't met anyone who has taught their child to read. Parents believe that school is the place where children should learn to read; it requires specialist training and resources; worst of all, they can screw up their kids if they get it wrong. I don't know where these ideas came from, but they are widespread and also completely untrue.

Many children don't learn to read at school, and never recover. Nearly half the prisoners in England's jails are illiterate: given a passage of a few short sentences, they can't understand its meaning.

Over half the adult population of England read at a level below that required for a good GCSE pass at age 16: they can't enjoy reading a novel because of the effort it takes.

Dyslexia is on the rise. This is where bright children have reading difficulties, which usually leads to academic failure in secondary school, where much of the curriculum relies on a minimum literacy level. It seems particularly tragic when bright children are robbed of their intelligence in this way.

It's natural for a parent to want the best education for their child, and it's relatively straightforward to guarantee they can read to a high level. Just follow these three steps: turn off the TV; read and talk to your child; teach your child to read. Simple.

Turn off the TV

For many years, researchers have seen a link between the amount of television children watch and their literacy. The cheapest and easiest method of improving your child's reading is to turn off the TV. If you put a television into a child's bedroom, it will reduce their intelligence - your children's teachers should tell you this, but they don't want to hurt your feelings. The same goes for video games and computers, I'm afraid.

When not watching television, your child is running round the house shouting; playing with dolls; annoying you in the kitchen; whining for chocolate biscuits; pretending to be a Dalek; spending half an hour washing their hands while muttering a Disney tune over and over and over again. Almost all of this infuriating nonsense involves some form of communication with other people or with themselves, which television doesn't.

TV is sedation and it makes kids stupid. If you want your child to read well, they need limits on the amount of TV they watch, because reading relies on good language skills which children hone through practice.

Older children when given the choice between reading a book, watching TV, surfing the web, or playing a video game will choose anything but the book. If you want your child to read well, don't give them the option. Reading requires practice.

I lie to my children that the TV is broken and I don't know how to fix it. It's the easiest way.

Read and talk to your child

University-educated mothers have children who do better at school. It turns out that bright mums read to their children and don't stop talking. Those kids from an early age have their heads filled with words, and know that books are wonderful collections of princesses, aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, monsters, and children just like them.

You don't have to have a great education to copy this trick, it's just that well-educated mothers find it more fun than those who don't often read books. If you don't like reading, force yourself: after a few weeks it becomes a habit. Just set aside an hour each night for bedtime stories. At the weekend, instead of watching a video, read a book.

Join a library and take out the maximum number of books, week after week, until your children have favourite books that they request. Buy a book of children's book recommendations. The Rough Guide to Children's Books has a great list of new and old children's stories, but appears to be out of print. The Read-Aloud Handbook is extremely good, even if it was obviously written for an American audience. Buy one, and make your own list of books you'd like to read.

Talking to your children also helps. We all think we talk to our children, but it turns out that some people talk more than others. Try to keep up a running commentary while you're at the shops: "We're in the salad aisle now, and we need to find tomatoes for lunch. Can you see the tomatoes? What colour are they? Yes, they're red. And what are these called? They're cucumbers, but we don't need any cucumbers; we need bananas. Can you find the bananas? Who are the bananas for?"

You'll feel like a complete nutcase the first few times you do this in public, but this is what highly educated mums do all the time. Practice and habit make it seem less ridiculous. Trust me, it will make your kids brighter. Those hundreds of thousands of words they hear from you will help to build the groundwork for reading.

Teach your child to read

It takes around 100 hours to teach reading from scratch, and this is spread over about nine months. You have a huge advantage over school teachers in that you can give your sole attention to a single child, for as long as it takes to make them into a great reader. Much of the art of the reception-class teacher is focused on the mastery of a classroom and detailed record-keeping that are necessary to teach 20 children at once. You need none of that, which is nice.

Most people can't remember how they learned to read, and so feel inadequately equipped to teach their children. It's all pretty straightforward. You teach the sounds of the letters in some way that the child can easily remember such as a rhyme: "B stands for /b/ in /b/, /b/, bat. C stands for /c/ in /c/, /c/, cat..." Then you begin to blend the letter sounds together to make words: "/b/, /a/, /t/... baaat... bat". This is known as synthetic phonics, and it's the way all children in England are now taught to read. Once simple blends are mastered, you move onto special combinations of letters like 'th', 'sh', 'ph', etc. Eventually, multi-syllabic words are introduced and English words that follow no sensible rules (so-called "sight words", that just have to be memorised by sight).

The main problem for a parent is finding a way of doing this that doesn't involve training to be a primary school teacher. One of the systems used in English schools is called Jolly Phonics, which is a huge collection of teaching resources and training guides that schools can buy. I found it totally useless to someone who doesn't know how to plan a lesson or who doesn't have the time.

Fortunately, there is one system that is aimed specifically at parents. It is called The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading, and at less than £20 it's a small fraction of the cost of Jolly Phonics. Lessons are fully planned, starting with a 10-minute lesson each day learning the sound of a letter, leading nine months later to half-hour lessons on sight words and uncommon word-endings.

All you have to do is read through the lesson so you know what's happening, perform the lesson from a script in the book, and follow up later in the day with a game. It really is that simple. You don't need any special equipment: just the book, a marker pen and some card.

One final point

I've suggested three simple ways that you can use to ensure your child will read. All three require consistency. Making TV rules is worthless unless you and your children follow those rules; reading bedtime stories for a week then stopping is a good idea that has failed; teaching your child the sounds of almost all the letters, then giving up at the first tantrum will not help.

Good luck.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Are stupid children happier?

Last week, I joined a group of parents and teachers who were talking about homework. They were a fairly representative bunch, in that they were mostly teaching at, or sending their children to, state schools.

"The kids hate it. Teachers never have time to mark it. Parents don't want to spend evenings arguing with kids about it. DOWN WITH HOMEWORK!!!!"

"I want to know who is this parent who allegedly keeps complaining that their child doesn't have enough?!"

"Parents [like] that don't want to spend decent time with their kids."

"Luckily, the teachers my two have aren't that bothered about homework. Both have stressed that the kids work hard at school and need a balanced life and to do other stuff, like talk to us, when not in school. Homework is just a big battle of who has the strongest will."

"All this pushy parenting and anxiety about how well your kids are doing, we all want our kids to do well. Being 'successful' doesn't make you happy or likeable. You concentrate on the person, not the academic results. I feel sorry for those that can't see that."

The conversation was also representative of an opinion I'd noticed amongst many teachers in England: that the pressure to succeed academically may be damaging to our children, and teachers should protect pupils from their parents' misguided ambitions. I disagree with this view as it favours ignorance over wisdom, barbarity over civilisation. In populist terms, they are saying Forest Gump was happier because he was stupid. There is good evidence that homework is strongly correlated with academic achievement, but these teachers and parents seemed to be suggesting that academic success was in some way antagonistic to happiness. What felt treacherous from my viewpoint is that this dogma is more prevalent amongst teachers in the state sector than in private schools.

Their argument goes something like this. We can't force children to learn; we can only provide an environment which will encourage them to explore the world with a sense of adventure. Children are only happy if they are free, and any external repression from parents or teachers will introduce inner hostility towards those in authority, which may also be turned inward and become self-hate.

The logic of this is inevitable, if rather depressing. Schools are no longer places where teachers teach and children learn; they are instead protective environments where children grow at their own pace. The aim of schooling is no longer an academic education, but happiness and personal development. If you think this sounds like an idea that would be promoted by the flower-power generation of the 1960s, then you'd be correct, but actually the roots of the idea are a bit older.

In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic era, a commonly held view was that children can learn all things naturally. This came from the observation that children learn to walk and talk without any tuition, so it seemed a logical extension to assume that any truly important human skill could be learnt through natural curiosity. Children are like flowering plants. If they are just planted into good soil, they will naturally grow and blossom.

Of course, this was before the era of mass education, and so it wasn't until the early twentieth-century when US educationalists took these Romantic ideas and turned them into what became known as progressive education. Learning must be an extension of play. Psychological development must take priority over academic study. Competition between pupils must be eliminated. Hard work and boring tasks have no place in the classroom. Vocational subjects such as mechanics and cookery were introduced into the curriculum.

Similar changes were taking place in the Soviet Union, and a mixture of the US and Soviet systems inspired British educationalists through the post-war decades, until it became the accepted model for English state education during the 1970s and 1980s.

My problem with current thinking is this. There is no evidence that children learn best with this model of education. Nor is there any evidence that children are happier in progressive schools. Those Romantic thinkers of 200 years ago were just, you know, overly Romantic. For a hundred years, many sensible people have pointed out that roughly zero children would learn long-division if given the choice, and most of what we call culture or civilisation is based upon a framework of knowledge that can only be taught, not discovered.

I'm painting an overly simplified picture, to be sure. Teachers are individuals with varied opinion. Progressive educationalists in England have moderated their views, especially in the past decade with the forced re-introduction of synthetic phonics as the main method of teaching reading. But still, there remains a widespread view amongst teachers that academic study is damaging to the emotional and psychological development of the child. I repeat, this is a view backed up with no evidence whatsoever; it is simply the ghost of the overly romantic notions of childhood held by nineteenth-century thinkers.

What is clear, from ample evidence, is that a traditional education is more successful at delivering a testable curriculum to children. Those privileged pupils in the private sector, and those in the top state schools that remained immune from many of the progressive ideas, have achieved consistently better examination results.

What is also clear is the lack of understanding amongst parents of these issues that affect their children's future. While most adults know that teachers no longer rely on rote learning, few parents would be able to tell you how lessons are structured in their local school. I can also guess that many parents, given the option of having a highly educated child who is less happy, might ask the question: "How much less happy?"

To which, any truthful teacher would have to reply: "I don't know. They might be even more happy. It's just a theory I have, with no supporting evidence apart from my own convictions and those of my colleagues."

After that, the choice becomes an easy one. Unfortunately, there is little hope in changing the long-held beliefs and practices of the English teaching profession.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

What is a privileged education?

Around 93% of English children are educated by the Government from the age of five until adulthood, with the remainder being educated at the expense of their parents in private schools (often confusingly known as public schools or independent schools). Pupils who are educated privately are seven times more likely to be accepted at Oxford University.

For many years, children in state schools had a higher drop-out rate at 16 years of age than their contemporaries in the private sector, which led to an increase in the proportion of university applicants from independent schools. However, even if we look only at 18-year-old school leavers, then the privately educated pupils are still over three times more likely to be accepted by Oxford.

More anecdotally, a recent survey of the educational background of 8000 individuals whose names are noted in the the birthday lists of nationals newspapers found that 80% received an education at private schools. These individuals include the leading English figures in business, acting, law, journalism, music and public service.

This phenomenon, of academic achievement based on parental wealth, is a symptom of what has been called a "privileged" education in England, and is unusual in the developed world. Although other countries have private schools, they don't seem to offer any great advantage over state education.

Since the 1960s, there have been those who have argued that the private education must be banned by the Government to make a fairer society. Most recently, the playwright Alan Bennett said: "I do believe that if private education was abolished, and we only had one system of education, the whole atmosphere of this country would alter.... A lot of the class divisions and silly stuff about old Etonians in the cabinet, all that would go. I just feel that we would be much more a nation."

However, there is no mainstream political will to abolish the private schools, and this is unlikely to change as the Labour party has based its recent election campaigns around centrist policies and the abandonment of class-division rhetoric. Certainly, the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 did nothing to discourage the private sector, and instead focused on improving access for state pupils into higher education.

From my standpoint, it would seem economic suicide for any country to close its best schools to promote social cohesion. Education is a social good in its own right, and it would seem overly oppressive to prevent parents from choosing how to raise their own children. The state has a very poor record of making the best decisions for children in its care, and it is inevitable that efforts to prevent good parenting would fail without the state surveillance apparatus of Soviet East Germany.

Perhaps, we should compare the private and state schools and try to understand why one is more successful than the other. In this blog, I aim to do just that. There are many parents who can't afford a private education for their children, but who still want their children to reach the pinnacle of success. It is my view that through discipline, routine, parental focus, and supplementary tuition, state pupils can level the playing field with their privileged contemporaries.