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The Crisis in Maths Teaching in Britain

Published in The Daily Telegraph
September 26, 2001

Lack of Teachers
Lack of Govt. Effort
Even Fewer Teachers

Þ Downward Spiral

Last month I spent a deeply depressing afternoon in the company of Tony Gardiner, lecturer at Birmingham University’s School of Mathematics. We had asked various experts to email us their views on the desperate lack of maths teachers in secondary schools, and for hours we pored through their despondent replies. “There are times in life,” says Dr Gardiner, “when it’s hard not to despair. For those who care about mathematics, schools, teachers and children, now would appear to be such a time.”

The teaching crisis hit the headlines shortly before the new school year, with reports of thousands of unfilled post and one survey showing that one third of newly qualified teachers leave within three years. Whatever the general situation, it is even worse in mathematics, which is why the Open University is hosting a conference to address the maths crisis.

I am a science writer, not a maths teacher, but I do regularly lecture in schools, so repeatedly I hear about the desperate situation in maths departments. I have met teachers who were obviously dedicated and capable, but who were resigning at the end of the year. Even more worrying, a friend’s 73-year-old father has been asked to come out of retirement to teach at an independent school. Although he is a fine teacher, this is symptomatic of a profession that has given up hope of finding new recruits.

The Government will admit to just a couple of hundred unfilled maths posts, but this number has so much spin that it is gyroscopic. Ministers ignore the many maths posts filled with temporary (and expensive) supply teachers or those from overseas, or teachers whose qualifications are in geography rather than mathematics. Schools cannot be picky, and one headmaster in a Northwest comprehensive was recently quoted as saying, “We are appointing staff, who in a perfect world, we would not touch with a barge pole.” Alison Wolf of the Institute of Education estimated that we need at least 5,000 more properly qualified maths teachers. If a teacher works with roughly 100 students, then 500,000 students are to some extent missing out on a decent maths education.

Matthew Horne’s report for Demos says that “Teaching has become an unsustainable profession.” Perhaps it is time to consider drastic solutions, such as making maths GCSE optional. That way, at least we would have enough qualified teachers to cover GCSE and A level. If you do not have the teachers, then it makes sense to discourage students. It is a shameful suggestion, but in five years it may be unavoidable.

In 1992, a survey showed that less than 40% of maintained secondary schools maths teachers had a qualification involving a “significant amount of mathematics”, but the Conservatives ignored the problem. Today Labour is in charge and Estelle Morris is Education and Skills Secretary, so she needs to take act immediately, unless she wants to undermine the positive moves resulting from numeracy strategies and reforms in primary education. In Tony Gardiner’s opinion, “The government and its officials need to be reminded of that most basic of all principles: When in a hole, stop digging, make an honest attempt to take stock, and look for the most likely sources of help!”

A short-term solution would be to help the estimated 25,000 maths teachers who would benefit from extensive mathematical retraining. These teachers are invaluable, but they currently know more about glaciers than geometry, and they need support. A medium term recruitment measure is to target university maths departments. If departments were awarded £10,000 for each graduate who completed 5 years of teaching, then perhaps they would encourage their graduates to become teachers. Furthermore, teachers who can communicate their passion for their job should be paid to visit university departments on recruiting drives.

Another positive measure would be the introduction of more classroom assistants. Teachers would feel valued and supported, pupils would receive more attention, and some assistants would in due course qualify as teachers. More classroom assistants might also deal with the increasing problem of classroom discipline. I suspect that many of those who leave teaching within three years are not prepared to put up with the small minority of students who can disrupt an entire class. Exclusion is never the ideal solution, but when the education of the majority is jeopardised by a minority, then it has to be considered. Teachers and students need to know that there is an ultimate sanction.

Naturally, better pay would also help recruitment and retention, but using money to address all the other issues is equally, if not more, crucial. These are only suggestions, and I may be completely wrong, but at least I get a tick for acknowledging the problem. Some argue that highlighting the problem only further discourages people from entering the profession, but I feel that it is necessary to publicise the problem in order to persuade the government to tackle it. Teaching is a vital profession, which can be rewarding and fulfilling, and the government has no excuse for not dealing with the current crisis.

The teaching crisis exists in many other subjects, and it needs to be addressed across the board, but it is worst in maths, followed by physics and technology. This is partly because in the Information Age those who could teach these subjects can easily find jobs elsewhere, which leads to a vicious circle. Without enough qualified maths teachers, fewer pupils will take A level maths let alone a maths degree, then we will not have enough mathematicians to drive the computer and internet economy, but those who do exist will get snapped up, and even fewer will go into teaching, so even fewer pupils will study maths, and so on.

So instead of weakening the future economy by failing to sort out the teaching crisis, costing us countless billion of pounds, it makes sense to invest a fraction of that money now to solve the problem.

The rewards would be phenomenal. Working this out does not require a PhD in number theory.