Hold your breadth and plunge into the depths?

by Lucy Rycroft-Smith, 05 May 2016

recent article in the Telegraph has alleged that UK schoolchildren are falling behind in maths because lessons in the subject are "a mile wide and an inch deep", according to Andreas Schleicher, a Director at the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Speaking at the World Education Forum in London, Schleicher commented further that "basically, the UK has a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep, in the sense that a lot of the learning in maths is rather superficial." 

Do the numbers back up his assertion? Actually, evidence suggests that the UK's position in the international comparison tables has not fluctuated, as Schleicher suggests it has. A document produced in 2015 by the National Foundation for Education Research states that, in terms of mathematics education, "England's position in terms of the number of countries and economies performing significantly better has remained relatively stable over time." 

And research conducted after the previous round of TIMSS and PISA measurement directly comparing the UK with Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Latvia and Ontario - nearly all of whom scored higher than the UK on the PISA comparison measures – found that 'the England mathematics curriculum does not stand out as unusual.' The study’s examination of breadth and depth within the curriculum does not support Schleicher's assertion that they are opposite poles on a spectrum of rigour. The research concluded that: "In the main, the English primary curriculum is strongly aligned to those of its international comparators." It's not yet clear what equivalent studies comparing the 2013 version of the UK maths curriculum to a similar range of international curricula will conclude as they are not yet available. However, comprehensive changes to the curriculum in the UK are now coming into force across both primary and secondary, involving 'focusing on curriculum content in considerable depth' according to the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics

Schleicher makes no distinction between claiming that both 'lessons' and 'curriculum' in the UK are lacking in depth and seems to be confused about what constitutes mathematical demand. He asserts that, in the UK: "Basically, the mathematics may not be very demanding, but they're presented to students in a context that makes it sort of difficult". In fact research on mathematics in the workplace suggests the level of mathematics used by people in the workplace and required by employers for all but the most highly numerate and technical jobs is "simple mathematics in complex settings". Being able to apply simple mathematics in sophisticated contexts is seen by many as preferable to applying complicated maths in simple contexts, bearing in mind that a main objective of studying mathematics is to solve problems successfully. 

Another study (this time focused on the post-16 curriculum in England) suggests that 'only about 20% of students in England study mathematics after GCSE' which is lower than 'most comparable countries'. It goes on to say that 'the breadth of the post-16 curriculum.. (is) usually associated with high levels of participation'. The clear implication: England's post-16 curriculum is lacking in breadth. This, then, is another piece of evidence which contradicts Schleicher's views. 

Our work here at Cambridge Mathematics is based on the assumption that there are new ways of thinking about what constitutes an appropriate mathematics curriculum for the 21st century, and the UK version is no exception. Schleicher's sweeping criticisms, however, are less than helpful; specific and research-based audits, detailed international comparisons and clear pathways for improvements are, however, more likely to be. Perhaps it is time to stop framing the mathematics curriculum debate in simplistic 'depth vs breadth' terms and consider a more three-dimensional model. Or four. Who knows what we might uncover? 

Lucy Rycroft-Smith 
Research and Communications Officer, Cambridge Mathematics

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