"Weapons of math instruction." That is what Beijing's English-language mouthpiece, Global Times – not normally much given to such wit – calls a Sino-British plan to export Chinese maths instructors to the UK and to send British teachers to Shanghai to learn why China is so good at numbers.
A scouting party of British teachers has been in Shanghai for the past week learning how to deploy those weapons in the gross domestic product wars. The logic is simple, not to mention simplistic: Shanghai tops the global league table in tests by the OECD, the Paris-based think-tank, of 15-year-olds' maths skills. Now the UK wants to get its hands on some of that Shanghai magic for its own maths-free masses so they can end up as rich as the Chinese.
Elizabeth Truss, then UK education minister, this year visited the Chinese financial centre and waxed lyrical about the advantages of giving the UK a maths education system with more Chinese characteristics. But quite apart from the rather breathless quality of her accolade, the logic is faulty.
If Chinese schools are so fabulous, why are a staggering 85 per cent of Chinese parents thinking about sending their children overseas to study, according to a recent HSBC report? And why are more and more mainland parents eager to expatriate their children in time to finish their final years of secondary school overseas when they could just as easily stay at home and win accolades from the OECD?
The apparent obsession of Britain’s Conservative party with the performance of one Chinese city’s students on a single mathematics test is probably just a manifestation of a global angst about China taking over the world. But other countries don’t seem to be importing Chinese teachers wholesale to show the locals how it’s done.
Of course, every education system can learn something from every other – not least about how not to do things. And there is much to be admired about Chinese students, their teachers and even their tiger parents.
There’s plenty of academic debate about why exactly Shanghai tops the maths charts on the OECD’s programme for international student assessment tests. There are those who would have us believe it’s all genetic – though, as the mother of one ethnically Chinese child who flunked her last maths test and another who counts maths as her worst subject, I am not much swayed by that argument.
Then there are those who say that it makes no sense to compare the test results of one of China’s richest, most advanced cities with entire countries where rich and poor school districts are combined. But that, too, is not all that persuasive since poor Chinese students in the hinterland have, if anything, even more incentive to do well in maths exams.
Australia’s Grattan Institute argues, in a recent study, that it is all about pedagogical strategies, such as mentoring and giving teachers more time outside the classroom. Grattan says, for example, that each new Shanghai teacher has two in-school mentors, one for classroom management and one for content. But an admittedly unscientific straw poll of a handful of teachers in Shanghai schools found that this was true for them only in their first year. How much difference can that make?
And then there’s the parenting: even Chinese cubs who don’t have a tiger mum usually have parents who spend a lot of time teaching them basic numeracy from infancy – when mums elsewhere are still mesmerising them with Baby Beethoven.
And last we come to what is, for me, the most entertaining argument of all: thatMandarin is a better language to learn maths in, for – among other things – the excellent reason that Mandarin speakers say “10+1” and “10+2”, saving the effort of learning to say “eleven” and “twelve”.
So by all means, let’s learn from each other. But the war on British innumeracy will not be won just with weapons of maths instruction from a Chinese education system that has lost the confidence of much of its own population, at least when it comes to the immediate pre-university years and above. Chinese parents are voting with their pocketbooks to remove their children from China’s schools. Maybe they know something we don’t.