Making Mathematics Count
On 24 February 2004 the long-awaited report of Adrian Smith's inquiry into mathematics education post-14 was published.
In his foreword to Charles Clarke, Professor Smith highlights the deep concerns expressed by so many " important stakeholders" about the learning and teaching of mathematics in England: there is a widespread belief that the situation has reached crisis level. The Report identifies three key areas of especial concern: there is a critical shortage of specialist mathematics teachers; the current framework of the curriculum and qualifications fails to meet the needs of "learners, higher education and employers" ; there should be provision for supporting those currently teaching mathematics via continuing professional development and other resources.
The Inquiry got under way in late 2002 in response to growing disquiet being expressed about mathematics education in the UK The disastrous failure rate at AS mathematics in 2001 and the subsequent drop of almost 20% in A level entries for the following academic year (on top of a fall of almost 10% in entries during the previous decade) finally seems to have made the alarm bells audible. The continued failure to recruit and retain specialist teachers of mathematics, despite the best efforts of the Teacher Training Agency, has put us in a situation where 40% of each year's graduates in mathematics would need to go into teaching for each of the next few years to close the gap, and that takes no account of the age profile of teachers in post, which indicates a much higher number than currently who will be reaching retirement age in the near future.
The report emphasises the importance of mathematics in today's economy and highlights the breadth of career opportunities for mathematics graduates; in a sense, mathematics has been a victim of its own success - teaching mathematics is perceived by many graduates as low down on the scale of attractive careers and some clear incentives are needed to attract graduates into the teaching profession in sufficient numbers.
Having put the case for the importance of mathematics the report takes a detailed look at the supply of teachers of mathematics, reviews current pathways in mathematics education and lays out suggested actions on these pathways and possible future pathways. Support for the teaching and learning of mathematics is considered and the need for national and regional infrastructures is argued.
In all, the report lists 44 recommendations, some of which can and should be implemented fairly swiftly, whilst others require much resourcing and considerable structural change and will require a longer time-scale to bring into play.
There should be general agreement in the mathematics community on many of the recommendations. However, one recommendation which has already proved controversial concerns the role of Statistics and Data Handling in the GCSE mathematics syllabus. Professor Smith, himself a statistician, suggests that much of the topic could better be taught in an integrated manner in other subjects which make use of the techniques, thereby freeing up time in the mathematics timetable to the acquisition of mastery of "core mathematical concepts".
The first two recommendations are designed to give mathematics a higher profile. It is suggested that a high-level post within DfES needs to be created for someone to have a specific responsibility for the subject. ACME should have increased support and a similar body should be established to carry out a parallel role with regard to strategic issues in research and knowledge transfer.
Recognising the need for fresh incentives to attract more graduates into teaching it is suggested that the possibility of enhanced remuneration for teachers of subjects where there is a shortage, such as mathematics, should be re-examined. In addition, fast-tracking towards teacher certification could provide an additional supply of teachers, albeit up to Key Stage 3 only, for example.
The seeming failure of GCSE to meet the needs of its constituents leads the Inquiry to recommend a two-tier system for GCSE mathematics and to make the subject a double-award one like science, in recognition of the amount of work it requires for success. One bone of contention has been that GCSE mathematics does not stretch the most able, and the Inquiry asks for special attention to be paid to this aspect. One size clearly does not fit all, no matter how it is packaged. The catastrophe that was AS mathematics in 2001 has resulted in attempts to ameliorate the situation by reducing syllabus content. If the next few years do not see a significant improvement in numbers taking mathematics post-16 the Inquiry suggests that radical measures, including some form of financial inducement, be considered - another recommendation which is likely to attract considerable opposition.
A strong element of the recommendations is the provision of fully-resourced support for mathematics teachers in the form of CPD which might be rewarded financially. Laudable as this idea is, it is going to take a strong shove from Government and a culture shift to get it implemented. Professor Smith states that about a quarter of mathematics teachers currently employed spend part of their time not teaching mathematics, and when you ask who is going to cover for mathematics teachers whilst they undertake their CPD the scale of the task comes sharply into focus.
As a mechanism for the provision of this support it is proposed that a National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching be established, together with nine Regional Mathematics Centres. In addition to supporting the delivery of CPD, the infrastructure should provide both a strategic co-ordination of and local support for a wide range of resource provision for the support of the teaching and learning of mathematics. Among elements to be considered are a resource for dissemination of educational research (including those relating to the use of ICT); networking with local schools, colleges, higher education and business and building on relevant existing mathematics support activities and initiatives.
In summary, the Inquiry has identified three areas of especial concern: the shortage of specialist mathematics teachers in schools; the failure of the current curriculum and qualifications framework to achieve fitness for purpose; the need to support current teachers of mathematics through CPD inter alia.
The report is to be welcomed and Professor Smith is to be congratulated on providing a clear exposition of the crisis we currently face and on offering a range of methods and strategies to rescue the subject from a fate akin to Classics. Let us offer our support and hope that Charles Clarke has the clout and the will to put these strategies in operation.
Dr L R Mustoe CMath FIMA
Member of The Higher Education Service Area
Director of Science and Engineering Foundation Studies