How much time is spent on maths and science in primary education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Compulsory instruction time per subject in primary education, in hours per school day (2015)

Primary school is a fundamental stage in children’s education. Yet it is often neglected in education research and policy debates, somehow squeezed between the seemingly more important stages of early childhood education and secondary education. The purpose of primary education is to build a solid foundation on which an entire life of learning can thrive. Cognitive processes such as working memory, attention, self-regulation, as well as character traits, communication skills, motivation and meta-learning attitudes grow enormously during the first years at school. And the primary school curriculum lays out the basic constituents of human knowledge by introducing students to its core disciplines.

Historically, the relative importance of the core subjects in primary school has always been a contentious issue. Many social interests and political opinions converge in the decision-making process, often resulting in an overcrowded curriculum prioritising expected social outcomes over children’s education needs and potential. A sound primary school curriculum should have sufficient “air” and flexibility to provide the space for children’s autonomous learning, for playful learning and for self-directed discovery of the world. Still, the relative weight of some of the core subjects in the curriculum is worth serious consideration.

The new Education Indicators in Focus brief presents the instruction time given to each of the main subjects in primary school across OECD countries in 2015. On average, primary school students receive 4.3 hours of instruction time per day. But as shown in the chart above, the differences across OECD countries are huge. More than one quarter of that time, 1.1 hours, on average, is spent on reading, writing and literature in the language used at school, ranging from almost two hours in France to .6 hours in Poland. France also devotes a relatively large amount of time to language instruction: no less than 37% of total instruction time.

Of course, language instruction is core to primary education. Reading and writing are foundation skills that are conventionally learned in the first years of primary school. Language instruction also supports wider cognitive development as well as social and communication skills.

But what about mathematics? And natural sciences? In most OECD countries, apart from some basic arithmetic, maths and science only made their way into the curriculum after the second industrial revolution. Curriculum reforms of the 1920s and 1930s provided space for maths and science education, often combined with new pedagogical approaches inspired by the child-centred pedagogy and the emerging field of cognitive psychology. In the second half of the 20th century it became generally accepted that basic mathematical understanding, or numeracy, and a basic knowledge of the natural world were as important foundation skills, to be mastered by every child, as literacy.

In 2015 on average across OECD countries, maths counted for 45 minutes of instruction time per day in primary education, and natural science for another 20 minutes. In relative terms, this translates to 17% of time devoted to maths and 8% devoted to science. So, on average primary schools across OECD countries spent approximately the same amount of instruction time on maths and science combined as on language. Thus, the core subjects of language, maths and science account for half of the total instruction time in primary education.

Yet, again, the differences among countries are huge. Korea and Poland provide less than half an hour per day of mathematics, while France, Mexico and Portugal devote more than one hour per day to maths at the primary level. The instruction time spent on maths and science outweighs that for language instruction by more than 25% in Chile, Portugal and Poland, while it counts for 25% or less time than for language instruction in Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Turkey.

Will the third and fourth industrial revolutions shake up the primary school curriculum again, leading to an increase in the time available for maths and science education? Contemporary concerns about STEM education have provoked new interest in the policy discussion on primary school curricula and the relative importance given to maths and science. To equip all students with the basic mathematical and scientific knowledge and understanding, sufficient time should be made available in the curriculum. Of course, time is only one of the variables in curriculum design. Even with all the time in the world, an uninspiring curriculum taught with bad pedagogies will yield poor results. And a badly designed curriculum that puts students under a lot of stress could reinforce maths anxiety and will dissuade students from pursuing maths education later on. Maths and science curricula need to be challenging, pedagogies need to focus on active learning and engagement, and children need sufficient time to understand the basics of maths and science. 

How is learning time organised in primary and secondary education? Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 38, by Eric Charbonnier
Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe, issue No. 38 (French version)
Photo credit: © OECD


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