Haven’t heard of Kumon yet? You probably will. Along with Mandarin and violin, Kumon is often considered the preserve of the tiger mother. But can it give kids a head start with maths? We ask around.
You may have heard whisper of Kumon in the playground, or passed one of its study centres – there are 680 dotted around the UK. You might have some fuzzy understanding that it relates in some way to maths, or perhaps written it off as something for the pushy parent – the kind who, not content with homework, makes their child take extra tuition when they don’t even have exams to study for.
But unless you’re actively involved with Kumon, or know someone who is, chances are you don’t know what goes on inside those buildings. Is Kumon where pushy parents send their over-scheduled offspring in the hope of getting them into posh school? Or is it a crammer geared towards raising the game of those falling behind?
Scour Mumsnet forums, or talk to the parents themselves, and you’ll quickly find that it’s a big mix of both. Some Kumon parents are determined for their children to excel; some want theirs to catch up. Others are simply fearful that if their children don’t sign up, they’ll miss out on an important educational opportunity.
Parents come from a wide range of backgrounds, though prices are relatively high, especially when you compare them to online maths courses (cost-wise, you’re looking at around £60 a month, depending on where you live, plus a £25 registration fee.) And whether you live in Merthyr Tydfil or Manchester, there’s a Kumon study centre near you.
But what exactly are you paying for? Well, it isn’t tuition. Kumon is all about encouraging independent study. The programmes (which are also offered for English as well) are based around worksheets, which children complete on their own, every day. The aim is to give children the confidence, skills and inclination to study alone.
The work itself involves lots of repetition – having done no end of times tables, a Kumon child can tell you what 8 times 7 is in an instant. The flip side of this is that you’ll often hear complaints from children (and their parents) that it’s boring.
The real question is, does it work? Can Kumon turn your maths-phobic child into a prodigy? We get the lowdown from three people – a Kumon instructor, a headmaster and a parent –all of whom have very different opinions…
Colette Allin is an instructor at the Stevenage North Kumon Study Centre and believes that the programme can transform a child’s future.
‘I’ve been an instructor for 17 years and I’ve seen miracles. It’s a self-learning programme, so there’s no teaching. What happens is that I’d visit your house and we’d do a test to find your child’s starting point. This would be an easy level, so children make a lot of progress very quickly.
But we’re not just teaching them maths or English. We’re teaching them to become independent learners. So in the early days we’re also making sure they sit up straight at the table, and can work quietly. The aim is to get them working above their level. I’ve got a year 5 girl who’s doing A-level work comfortably.
Kumon works separately from the National Curriculum. It isn’t problem solving, but it gives children pure maths skills so they have speed and recollection. The National Curriculum is being changed so that pupils will be expected to have a much firmer grip on their times tables. We’ve been working on times tables for years in a way that gives children that necessary speed and fluency.
They get that by doing little and often. Children do 10 minutes every day and it builds up their speed. But to me one of the best things about it is the confidence building. I have an autistic boy in my class who was told he’d never be able to go to mainstream school. He’s now the first boy in his school to do SATs. I had a girl in year 8 who’d never got more than 30 out of 50 in a maths test. After two-and-a-half months, she got 48 out of 50.
I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but I know it really works. I believe that if it isn’t going to work, it isn’t because of the child – it’s the parents. Some working parents haven’t got time to mark the work and offer positive feedback. It takes less than 5 minutes – not long at all – but parents are extremely busy.
But if they stay with me, they all achieve. I’ve got a girl going to Cambridge whose maths was below average. I’ve got lawyers, I’ve got three brothers who are all dentists, one doctor whose wedding I went to last year – they all keep in touch with me, so I know I’ve made a difference in their lives. It gives children a real self-belief, and then once they get the confidence, they fly. I think it’s very powerful stuff.’
Giles Delaney, headmaster at St John’s Beaumont Preparatory School, is studying for a Masters at Oxford University. His area of research is curriculum development, assessment and motivation of boys, looking at the impact of additional curricula such as Kumon. He argues that the programme offers no long-term benefit.
‘Any activity that encourages children to think in way that improves their educational performance must place them at an advantage. And Kumon appears, at least in the short term, to offer some benefit.
As a parent, I want to see a focus on independence and understanding in my own daughters’ education, and Kumon teachers would likely say that their curriculum teaches independence. But it depends on your interpretation of the word. I believe they’re referring to a child’s ability to sit down and work on their own, whereas to me ‘independence’ refers to a child’s ability to think or solve problems on their own.
Our boys are talented and able mathematicians because they can problem-solve and understand how numbers work and interrelate, not because they have a quick recall.
The way we see it, Kumon overlooks effective problem solving in favour of quick results achieved through repetition and speed. Too often its focus leans towards results when maths in general (including GCSE and A-level) emphasises the importance of process.
When faced with fast (short-term) improvements, it’s obvious why parents see Kumon as a quick fix. Perhaps it is, but I don’t see it as an effective long-term solution.
Asking ‘Does Kumon benefit a child’s performance at KS1?’ can be misleading. Yes, it might benefit a child’s progress at KS1, where children are tested on their recall of basic number facts. If the educational race finished at this stage, Kumon might be worth the time and expense.
But KS1’s role is to provide a foundation for a child’s future performance in mathematics – one that encourages exploration, observation, and problem solving, not repetition.
We find that having to answer identical question after question demotivates our able mathematicians. What stimulates their interest and learning potential is being asked, “What if?” or “How come..?” Kumon can be useful for those struggling with basic number skills, but doesn’t help them apply these processes to more complex problems.
Kumon isn’t the answer. The answer is far more simple. Children of all ages should – together with friends and family – play with numbers and materials, accessing maths through real-life experiences of number and shape. For example, shopping (money), cooking (measuring), times tables and general creative play. Through these activities, children will engage in a range of mathematical experiences, which they might not yet be ready to put words around, but are the foundations for their future progress.
I’m not convinced – far from it, in fact – that Kumon has any significant role to play in developing talented and able mathematicians.’
Esme Taylor enrolled her son Arlo in Kumon when he was 4 and continued until he was 6. He’s now top of his class in maths.
‘I’d always planned to send Arlo to Kumon when the time came. Though I want my children to be free spirited and equipped to solve problems for themselves, I’d always been drawn to this repetitive and arguably mundane Japanese system of recounting and repeating ordered numbers until they stuck. It seemed wholesome and old fashioned – how maths was supposed to be learned. Perhaps, secretly, I just hoped my child would be top of the class.
We started when Arlo was 4, though many start at 3. He’d been at school for a term and was reading and writing (sometimes backwards) numbers to 10. The stage Arlo started at was probably one level ahead of the beginning of the programme. It was simple and repetitive, involving him reading a single-digit number and then tracing it. Also reading the word: i.e. ‘three’ – and tracing that. There might be a sequence of numbers between 1 and 10 with one number missing and he needed to fill in the missing number. In the beginning, I supervised him, and it took about ten minutes per day (per subject, we did English, too)
To begin with, he really enjoyed the routine of the workbooks and we’d reward him with, for example, screen time. All it involved was a 20-minute round trip twice a week to the study centre, and 20 minutes a day of supervision/marking. At the end of year one, his maths grade was almost a year higher than the national average, his peers, and his grade in other subjects.
But after around three months, the novelty wore off and he wanted to quit. The tutor was amazingly supportive and assured us that it was normal for him to resent doing the work as it became more difficult and he would want to take the easy option.
After six months or so, the work became more difficult again, and Arlo would cry at the table when presented with his daily worksheets. It stopped being a pleasure, and since I wasn’t seeing concrete results, I began questioning that forcing my 6 year old to do something that made him cry on a daily basis was the right thing to do.
I started to believe that forcing him to learn something he didn’t want to would rid him of his wonderful and natural curiosity. He loved drama class and played chess competitively, so there were other activities that needed our time and money, too. In the end, I couldn’t bear to see my beautiful and studious little boy, who questioned everything and loved learning, waste so much energy begging me not to do something he hated so much. He broke me and we gave our months’ notice.
To other parents thinking about signing up, I’d say really think about the time commitment. At our study centre, it was very much frowned upon to leave Kumon early to get to Beavers or swimming lessons. The cost is more comparable to a private tutor than that of an after-school club. To get value for money, choose a centre with a low tutor/child ratio.
Be prepared for meltdowns and be sure that, especially as the work gets harder, you trust in the system enough to make the fight worth it. And check your child’s progress at school – you need to be sure that your investment is worthy of your money, time and tears.
Now our son is top of his class, and one level above that expected for his year group. While, on the whole, he is smart and studious, I absolutely thank Kumon for that advantage.’Find out more about Kumon here.
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