So what is behind China’s expertise in Maths…. 

…(and Table Tennis), can we emulate it and what might they want to learn from us?

Parental Choice is working closely with global education establishments, helping them relocate staff; but also finding schools for families moving abroad for work.

As a result we have taken a look at the Chinese education system.  It is famous around the world, but how does it compare to the UK?  Liz Browne, was privileged enough to travel to Beijing and has compared the systems in the two countries.

Despite heavy investment from the UK government in education the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has shown a year on year decline in the achievement of our learners now ranked 25th for Maths in a table led by south-east Asian jurisdictions including Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

A number of strategies have been put in place to halt the decline in the UK’s position. The Department for Education has allocated £41million to improve the teaching of Maths with the establishment of 32 Maths Hubs across the country offering training and strategies to improve Maths teaching in our schools. In an attempt to borrow good practice from the Chinese, academics from Shanghai Normal University and England’s National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths (NCETM) are collaborating to design lessons and materials. Later this year, 50 teachers from Shanghai will be introduced to the Maths Hubs to teach pupils and run masterclasses for other teachers. Lessons will be shared online.

Other techniques and methods used will include:

  • specialist subject teaching for primary pupils in Maths and other subjects instead of a designated class teacher
  • effective use of textbooks and shared lesson plans to help teachers add stretch and challenge in Maths teaching
  • lesson plans available online so teachers can use them and rate which are most useful
  • daily maths lessons, homework and catch up to ensure all children master core techniques
  • fluency and deep understanding of formal maths including columnar addition and subtraction, long multiplication and long division in line with the new national curriculum, as well as times tables and number bonds.

So, for UK policy makers, the answer as to why the Chinese are good at Maths lies in the teaching methods used and the qualifications of those who teach the subject. For me, the answer as to why the Chinese are good a Maths and table tennis is because they enjoy it! I have seen the young and old alike excited by the challenge of working with number and the excitement of a personal win when playing table tennis. And it is in the singles game that the Chinese excel, because personal achievement dominates the Chinese psych.

Could do better

As our media berate us with slogans of ‘could do better’ you will be surprised to know that academics from English Universities are being invited to Beijing to demonstrate Western teaching approaches. As one such academic I have delivered, on a number of occasions, intensive training to University Professors and teachers in China, on interactive teaching methods. In 2020 the PISA tables will report on learner’s ability to be creative and innovative and the Chinese are worried!

When I visited China I trained 100 teachers who all work in one well-equipped and highly maintained school providing education for 3,000 Primary aged children. The external appearance of this newly built school, surrounded by high rise residential blocks, gave an impression of space, cleanliness and order. In a small garden area different garden vegetables were growing. Football equipment was out in the play area. Pictures of children engaged in project work, art, performance and drama ordain the walls. But, desks were in rows and although there was evidence of an enthusiasm for new ideas and innovation this is rare, with teachers struggling to offer differentiated learning experiences and lessons that motivate and inspire other than the brightest of learners.

In line with the 1980’s China’ ‘opening-up policy’ China wants to engage with Western Economies and realises the importance of innovation in the current times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (Schick ). The Chinese value education: however, the heavily focused examination system and tiered access to higher education is not producing innovative, creative and entrepreneurial young people essential for any economy if it is to grow and compete on the world stage.  Neither is it providing an education for all young people irrespective of their various abilities and skills.

Best trained teachers

According to the UK government, we currently have the best trained teachers ever (DfE: 2012) with teacher training based on established theories on how to support learners from a range of backgrounds, with varying learning needs. Teachers successfully motivate young people whose first language may not be English and plan lessons which allow the most able to achieve great heights whilst also differentiating approaches to support the less able. Schools in the UK employ Learning Support Assistants (LSAs) to help those identified with learning needs. Children are encouraged to question, to show initiative, to be adventurous and take responsibility.

The teachers I met in China had no support in the classroom and managed classes with up to 55 pupils. The methods used focus on listening to what the teacher has to say, following instructions, copying down, reciting key texts, sitting still and accepting what is said as ‘true’ knowledge.

Problems in the Chinese classroom

Today China is experiencing problems in the classroom. Young people I am told, struggle with accepting dictatorial methods. The one child policy has created young learners who expect privilege and struggle with discipline. Individuality is encouraged at home and group work, the formation of friendships and collegiality, is not common place yet these are the skills that need developing for 21st century working practice. The Chinese government has realised the need for an educational approach that encourages creative thinking and promotes group work and collaboration.


In the UK some learning sessions will be delivered online. For example, my local Primary School accesses a ‘Super Maths’ course for the most able learners. Our National Curriculum includes computer programming skills. Children program ‘Bee Bots’ to develop their skills and many Primary Schools offer after school and/or lunch time computer clubs.

Teachers I have worked with in China are not encouraged to embrace IT. I am told that iPhones are banned in the Chinese classroom. The internet is not accessible for learning activities. The current Chinese approach of pupils following instructions, copying down text and showing deference doesn’t sit well with the impact that access to technology is having on Western learners who can be adventurous searchers for new knowledge when encouraged to use technology appropriately.

One of the most interesting sessions during my recent visit involved the course participants answering key questions during a period of intensive learning using a mobile App. Using technology in the classroom to assess learning, to set homework, to encourage group working was anathema to the teachers and yet, interestingly, they were as addicted to their phones as my University students tend to be!

It is feasible that the Chinese approach to technology in the classroom is the correct one, but I doubt it. As Western Universities expand the use of new pedagogic approaches such as open text book, immersive learning, big data logistics and artificial intelligence, it is hard to imagine where large economies will sit on the world stage if they don’t embrace technology for learners at an early stage in their schooling. Young people in the UK are growing up as confident, and we hope, safe users of technology as a tool for gaining new knowledge.


I consider myself very privileged to have travelled to China, to observe the teaching methods, and to work with teachers. I anticipate greater sharing of ideas across more world boundaries and it is comforting to know that our education system and approach is still admired across the world. I will sign off now as a delegation of Russian academics, again interested in our methods, will be visiting the University next month and I need to prepare for their visit.

About Liz Browne

Liz studied for her first degree at Bristol University before teaching in secondary schools in Wiltshire and Somerset. Her second position in Somerset was as a Deputy Head of a large comprehensive school. At this time, she completed a Master Degree in Education Theory, again at Bristol University.

After the birth of her two sons Liz followed her husband’s career to Buckingham and Oxfordshire where she took short term supply posts in a range of secondary schools.   She returned to work part time when her children started school. She was appointed to a full-time post as Head of the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education in a College of Further Education. When Liz’s eldest son told her to find a hobby that didn’t involve ‘enthusiastically’ supporting him from the edge of the football pitch she returned to academic study and completed another Masters degree, this time with the Open University. Liz then started to study for a Doctorate at the Open University but when she secured a lecturing post at a university transferred her registration to her place of employment and in 2003 gained an Education Doctorate from Oxford Brookes University.

During her time at Oxford Brookes University Liz has secured significant funding and established the institutions reputation as a University which champions the work of the Further Education (FE) Sector. It was Oxford Brookes that was selected as the validating university for the National Teaching and Learning Change programme, a programme which introduced the concept of subject learning coaches into the FE sector. Liz worked with the Department for Education (DfE) to design this provision and with national sector organisations to secure the quality of the training.

In 2008 Liz was invited to bid for funding from government to establish a Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training (CETT). The bid was successful and in 2012 Liz was appointed as the Head of the Centre for Education Consultancy and in 2014 was awarded the position of Professor in Education at Oxford Brookes University.

Liz has written three books on teacher training, all of which are to be found on the shelves of FE College libraries across the country and has written a number of articles on FE and HE sector change management. She is a governor of an ‘Outstanding’ Primary School, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Institute for Learning. She believes passionately in the importance of education for the opportunities it offers and the confidence it gives to young people to help them form the questions that will lead to peace and prosperity in our complex world.


Department for Education (2012) Training the Next Generation of Teachers. HMSO

PISA (2017) published by Office for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD:2018)

Schick, A; Hobson, P; Ibisch, P; (2017). “Conservation and sustainable development in a VUCA world: the need for a systemic and ecosystem‐based approach”. Ecosystem Health and Sustainability. 3 (4) pp.215-219

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