Study undermines claim philosophy boosts maths and reading skills

Trial designed to develop social skills and cognitive abilities had suggested improvements in other subjects

A controversial study that suggested engaging primary schoolchildren in philosophical discussions could also improve their maths and reading has been undermined by new research that found little or no improvements in those subjects.

An initial 2015 trial into the use of Philosophy 4 Children (P4C), a programme designed to develop social skills and cognitive abilities, had revealed an unexpected bonus in the form of improving reading and maths performance by the equivalent of two months in the primary schools that took part.

But a larger follow-up study funded at a cost of £1.2m by the Education Endowment Foundation showed no significant improvement in the reading ability of disadvantaged children, one of the programme’s main aims, and none of the statistically significant improvements in maths or reading.

Nearly 200 primary schools in England took part in the expanded study, involving 3,600 pupils in year six, divided between a control group of schools and those where teachers received training in conducting open-ended discussions on topics such as fairness or bullying. Teachers acted as moderators for the weekly, hour-long sessions.

Stephen Gorard, a professor of education and public policy at Durham University who was an independent assessor of the original trial, said that the two studies weren’t directly comparable and that the larger study still showed small positive benefits.

“You wouldn’t want to spend billions of pounds on it, but if you wanted to spend curriculum time on P4C it won’t significantly affect or harm outcomes and might slightly improve them,” Gorard said.

Teachers who took part in the latest study reported that the programme had a positive impact on pupils’ social, thinking and communication skills, and found it particularly helpful for children who were less self-confident.

Almost all the teachers who took part said their pupils had improved their level of respect for others’ opinions, and improved their ability to express their views.

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Richard Adams Education editor

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