‘Above all, it is a cultural thing.” Professor Lianghuo Fan is reflecting on the differences he has noticed between maths education in China and Singapore, where he lived and taught for 40 years, and in Britain, where he is now based. “In China, all parents know that maths is the number one subject in schools, and they expect that in a modern society everyone must be comfortable with maths, even if that means they have to work hard at it.

An eminent Chinese mathematician reveals the secrets of his country’s excellent maths education system to Peter Stanford.

“That attitude is passed on to their children. But here in Britain, you can feel students’ attitude about mathematics is different. They feel all right if they say they don’t like mathematics.”

Professor Fan is not alone in highlighting this national phobia of ours about maths. The government has this week shown itself determined to tackle the problem head on with the unveiling of a new “back-to-basics” primary school maths curriculum, with a renewed emphasis on times-tables, mental arithmetic, fractions and rote learning.

Most people over 40 will see the proposals as a return to the classroom practice of their childhood – but in its introductory remarks the Department for Education claimed inspiration from Asian model that Professor Fan knows so well: “I never heard a child in China or Singapore say that they don’t like maths’,” he stresses, “without a sense of embarrassment.”

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