31 July 2002
I have spent the last decade trying to engage the public in maths. I have been a Tomorrow’s World producer, written books, presented radio and TV programmes and lectured up and down the country. Over the last six months, however, I have started to realise that I have been wasting my time. Encouraging an interest in maths among grown-ups is fine and dandy, but kicking up a stink about the lack of maths teachers is far more important.
Whenever I visit a school I inevitably meet a great maths teacher who is about to leave the profession or a head teacher who moans about zero applicants for empty maths posts. While visiting one school, I was told of two nearby secondary schools without a single qualified maths teacher. At another secondary school, I was told that the most qualified maths teacher did not have even have a grade A at GCSE – if he could achieve this, then he had been promised the job of head of department.
I am not saying that you have to be a maths genius to teach maths. Neither am I saying that all maths teachers are rubbish. In fact, many of them are brilliant. The problem is that we don’t have nearly enough of them. There is a dire shortage of passionate and knowledgeable maths teachers. And in fact, the problem is just as bad in physics, chemistry and technology.
The consequences of this are obvious – fewer people going on to study science, maths, computing and engineering at university, fewer candidates for vital jobs, fewer innovators and a general decline in UK industry … and of course there will be fewer potential teachers and the vicious circle is complete. And yet the government is failing miserably to address the problem, even in last week’s science, engineering and technology strategy.
I have to accept that the government’s numeracy strategy has had an impact among primary schoolchildren and the extra money pumped into education has to be good news. And indications that the curriculum will be revamped should be welcomed. But all of this will be squandered without a sufficient number of decent secondary maths teachers? The government is offering incentives to encourage students into the profession, but the impact has been negligible. And a disastrously high fraction of those who do enter the profession soon disappear when they realise that teaching is no longer fun.
So, what is the solution? First, provide more assistants for maths and science teachers, so that they do not have worry about admin and photocopying and instead can focus on the fun and rewarding part of the job, which is teaching itself. In due course, these assistants could become teachers themselves.
Second, tackle the issue of classroom discipline. A significant number of those who leave teaching could be great teachers, but they are unable to control the tiny fraction of pupils who insist on being disruptive. Similarly, many people do not consider entering the profession because of the horror stories surrounding unruly pupils.
These first two suggestions could help teachers in all subject, but the thirds one is specific to maths. Split maths CGSE into two GCSE’s – core maths (fractions, percentages, graphs, day to day maths) and advanced maths (calculus, trigonometry, the tough stuff). The core GCSE would be compulsory, but it would put fewer demands on the teachers, so it would be easier to train and recruit staff. The advanced GCSE would be taken by roughly 20% of pupils, who would have completed the core maths at an accelerated pace. Those teachers who are qualified to teach maths would focus their attention on this group.
Some people claim that complaining about the situation only serves to discourage people from entering teaching. But keeping quiet over the last decade has only resulted in a steady decline in the number of teachers.
The people with power don’t realise the severity of the situation. Politicians are generally not mathematicians, so they don’t know enough to realise the significance of the problem or care about it. Influential people send their offspring to the few schools that still have a decent maths department. And anyone who can vote is too old to still be forced to sit through boring lessons where there the teacher is not competent to teach trigonometry, because he or she is a geographer who is filling a gap in the maths department.
If education were a matter of life and death, like the National Health Service, then we would not be in the position that we are in today. Imagine the fuss if a third of doctors were not properly qualified to practice medicine. Nobody is going to drop dead if they have a bad maths teacher, but mathematics is the language of science, of economics and of engineering. In short, it is the language of industrial innovation. In a decade or so, the economy will start to look sickly if it is starved of the mathematical brains to power it.