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Maths lessons from China: More demanding parents, everyone can do maths, teacher collaboration and specialist primary teachers

PUBLISHED: 07:00 11 March 2014

Elizabeth Truss and Rachel de Souza

Elizabeth Truss and Rachel de Souza


Norfolk parents need to put more pressure on schools over their child’s level of achievement, according to a leading Norfolk educationalist who returned from a fact-finding mission to China.

Norfolk headteachers on whether Norfolk parents should demand more of their child’s school

Mark Farrar, principal of Reepham High, said: “I think for a child to succeed in school, parents must be involved in partnership with schools in helping the child.”

However, he added: “My children would go bonkers if I went through their school bags and looked at their books. I think it’s a different culture here, compared to China.”

For Jonathan Rice, headteacher of South Wootton Junior School, some parents are very engaged, while others are very hard to reach, and “parents should be demanding, but we also have to cater for the children whose parents won’t ask and won’t engage”.

He added: “One parent of a child at my school asked for a copy of the Level 6 maths paper his son had done at school to be sent home so he could have a go, under test conditions. The boy had got 17 out of 25 at school, dad got 12. But the motivating effect on the child was fantastic.”

He said the key was for school to be as clear as possible with parents about the school’s aims, and what skills and knowledge children should acquire.

The comments from Dame Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust of Norfolk academies, sparked questions about whether Norfolk parents care enough about what happens to their children in school.

She said Chinese teachers told her parents were their biggest cause of stress because of the pressure they put them under, with homework going back every day, and parents checking their child’s grades.

She said: “I think our parents could be much more demanding, making sure that work is marked, and about standards. We have to work as a three - parents, teachers and children.”

Last year’s Pisa international league tables ranked Shanghai top for maths, and an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis claimed children of manual workers in Shanghai out performed children of highly-paid professionals in England.

Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss

The findings sparked debate about maths education in the UK, and controversy about the reliability of Pisa tables which used tests that more than a quarter of Shanghai 15-year-olds did not sit.

However, Department for Education data on the 2013 GCSE results in England showed students who are ethnically Chinese significantly out-performed white British students. 71% of white British pupils gained at least a C in maths, compared to 93% of Chinese pupils; the figures for science were 72% and 90% respectively.

The delegation’s trip to China was not just big news in the UK, but made the headlines in China itself, and education minister and South West Norfolk MP Truss gave a press conference for Chinese journalists.

She said: “In terms of attitude and standards, they were particularly positive about maths. They believe it would help them get good jobs. When you ask what jobs they want, what they said was scientist, engineer or maths teacher.”

Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss

Dame Rachel said: “I asked them ‘what about low ability?’. They looked almost blank. They said it’s hard work that makes you good at mathematics, not some kind of natural ability. There are no more geniuses in China than Norfolk.

“If a child does not get the day’s lesson, they are picked up in the afternoon, and they are supported and if necessary receive extra tutoring. There’s not a sense that you can’t do it.”

She added: “The amount of collaboration between teachers is really impressive. In Shanghai everyone shares their lesson plans on a website and if you get yours chosen it’s a real kudos.”

Dame Rachel said she wanted to bring specialist maths and language teachers to the primary schools within the Inspiration Trust.

But the learning is not all one way, and Dame Rachel said there was a huge will among Chinese teachers to take part in teaching exchanges with British teachers, and to learn how to encourage problem solving and creative thinking among their pupils.

She said she wanted Norfolk to lead the way on a renaissance of maths teaching in the UK, and called for a national programme to bring the best maths teaching methods from the East over here.

Do Norfolk parents care enough about how their children’s schooling? Email

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