Tuesday 9 August 2011

Why Our Schools Still Fail At Maths

There are some good points in the Maths Task Force's report to the government on the future of maths teaching in our schools. The task force, headed by Carol Vorderman, was established by the Conservative Party while they were in opposition.

Carol Vorderman
Image from Wikipedia.
Firstly the problem: the education system in the UK is producing vast numbers of 16 year olds without a basic grasp of mathematics. The report says that 300,000 pupils complete their education at the age of 16 every year without a sufficient understanding of maths and that 24% of adults are "functionally innumerate".

This is not good for those individuals, whose options will be limited, and not good for employers, who increasingly need workers with at least a basic mathematical ability.

Why is this happening? The report blames a shortage of maths teachers, although it must be made clear, this is not the situation in all parts of the UK. As a result, the report concludes, a quarter of maths classes are currently being taken by non-specialists, i.e. teachers whose degree was not in mathematics. It also points out that there are shortcomings in primary education. With non-specialists being used to teach (primary teachers generally teach all subjects), they are not adequately prepared for the rigour required in mathematics.

Secondly, the report blames the way in which the curriculum has been devised. It has been formulated, it says, not by educators, but by administrators, whose understanding of what really needs to be taught in the maths classroom, is lacking.

The report makes a number of recommendations, the one which has caught the media's attention being to extend compulsory maths education up to the age of 18. The report makes it clear that this extra study would not necessarily be in the form of an AS or A2 qualification, but should take the form of very practical courses.

Another key point of the report is to scrap the final vestiges of the SATs tests, those taken by 11 year olds. By "teaching to the test", teachers are narrowing the learning of their pupils, thereby preventing a broader mathematical understanding, which would give them a far better grounding for secondary school.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, backs the suggestions in the report. Even before it was released, Gove was talking about compulsory maths teaching up to the age of 18.

So, what should we make of the Task Force report?

The shortage of maths specialists in our schools is fundamental and must be addressed. There is no substitute for clear, authoritative, imaginative and well-thought out teaching. Addressing this problem alone would go a long way to solving the problem. This raises questions of teachers' pay, attracting academic excellence into the teaching profession, and why it is impossible to hire good quality teachers at certain schools, but these are issues that must wait for another time.

It is easy to blame SATs, which have been condemned by teachers ever since their introduction. Key Stage 2 SATs are a waste of time and they force teachers to focus on teaching to the test alone, which narrows the field of the pupils' learning. These things are true, and SATs should certainly be abolished. But it is hard to believe they can seriously impact on a child's mathematical progression through secondary school and beyond.

Thirdly, teaching of maths to all pupils to the age of 18 would be very difficult to implement. Trying to teach a class full of pupils who had failed their GCSE, who thought they were going to be free of mathematics, only to find they have another 2 compulsory years of it, does not sound like a good idea, especially if these compulsory lessons were not going to lead to any proper qualification.

So the report's findings are mixed. Compulsory maths teaching to the age of 18, on its own, is not going to fix this chronic, very real problem. Unless the pupils who emerge without a C at GCSE are given some serious incentives to study their loathed subject for another two years, this idea is doomed to failure. What would? Teaching better, by good quality teachers, not necessarily for longer.

The CBI, some universities and FE colleges have welcomed the report and praised the suggestion of compulsory maths education to the age of 18. However, the National Union of Teachers has said it does not understand the need for such a report, given that a full review of the National Curriculum is underway. We say: care and serious consideration is required. We have discussed the curious decisions of the education secretary before on this blog. Be careful what you wish for Mr Gove.

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