Teacher Shortages Revisited

Richard Evans returns to his theme of teacher shortages and what can be done

It’s been said before but here is my take on the current situation. It’s a case of good and bad news. First the good news: the government seems to have recognised the long standing crisis associated with the supply of teachers in mathematics and numeracy both in terms of quantity and quality. The bad news is that there is continuing difficulty in significantly increasing the flow of qualified teachers let alone retaining the stock of both new and experienced teachers.

To highlight the paucity of thinking and how detached this government has become from the realities of teaching I quote from a recent letter in the TES drawing attention to a press release from the DCSF Department-wait for it!

‘As leading navigators you are mission critical to achieving robust and effective discharge pathways from the secondary phase of the intensive learning scenario’.

I presume this is a call to the teaching profession. Obviously the Department is in dire need of colonic irrigation after such a meaningless, convoluted statement. One always knows a government has lost the plot and run out of ideas when they seek sanctuary in empty rhetoric, lots of press releases and noise from the government and its departments without any likelihood of long-lasting significance or improvement.

Elements of the good news are that a great deal has happened over recent years e.g.

  • The Adrian Smith Inquiry (2004).
  • The appointment of a government advisor for mathematics namely Celia Hoyles.
  • The establishment of the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (ACME).
  • The creation of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (CETM) and a series of mathematics support centres.
  • The Royal Society’s first State of the Nation Report (Reviewed in the last Numeracy Briefing).
  • The Williams Report – now proposes a mathematics specialist in every primary school within the next ten years.
  • Numerous initiatives on basic skills including numeracy.

Concerns.

In spite of these worthy intentions, developments, innumerable proposals and targets that have flowed from them, little has improved. The crisis in the teaching of mathematics, physical sciences and indeed modern languages has been around for decades and yet a multitude of initiatives has done little to improve the situation which is actually worse when one makes international comparisons. At all levels of education and training problems persist as evidenced by continued concerns expressed:

  • by head teachers and principals over recruiting specialist teachers;
  • by admission tutors at colleges and universities on the mathematical and numerical capability of applicants;
  • and finally by employers over recruitment of competent employees.

Endless reports and surveys have continually voiced concerns and yet the fundamental problems remain unresolved.

All too often politicians, their armies of advisors and quango-personnel tinker with the issues seeking short term solutions. Governments always seem to make the situation complicated ignoring the admirable acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid! Inevitably one is confronted with a multitude of initiatives, organisations and massive bureaucratic systems. It’s reminiscent of papering over the cracks -at first the wall paper looks nice but the cracks beneath remain. No real attempt is made to identify and address what caused the cracks in the first place namely:

  • why so few people study mathematics after 16;
  • the negative attitude to the subjects at all stages of education and in society in general.
  • and the resultant low numbers entering the teaching profession to teach mathematics.

The problems are deep seated, multifarious and fundamental.

The problem

I will not restate the arguments, in depth, made over many decades that there is a long standing hostility and reluctance by many people in this country to study mathematics and subjects that require mathematical themes. Many have argued that this is a cultural characteristic and has resulted in insufficient numbers of people studying the subject in any depth and has contributed to very few entering strategically important subjects like engineering, the physical sciences, statistics and mathematics itself. As a result this has caused recruitment problems in the teaching profession. However, I would argue that there are other critical elements that currently contribute to the crisis in the teaching of the subject which include the following, many of which are interconnected:

  • The behaviour and general attitude of learners to their studies – many teachers feel that many learners lack interest and motivation in the subjects arising from rigid, over prescriptive and uninspiring curricula and as a result become disruptive and display behavioural problems.

  • An educational system dominated by bureaucracy, pointless targets, over- testing and paperwork – demotivating teachers and ultimately the switched off learners.

  • Recent surveys have shown even when new people enter the profession they often leave after a few years complaining about the behaviour and attitude of learners towards the subject. Clearly the subject presents additional challenges to teachers when one accepts the cultural dimension associated with the subject. Similar problems exist with teachers of physics as shown be a recent report by Alan Smithers.

  • Poor teaching and under- qualified teachers – a product of so few properly qualified teachers entering the profession to teach these important subjects. Traditionally because of problems recruiting mathematics teachers many schools and college have appointed non-specialists or people who have not studied the subject beyond, say, ‘O’ level. Sadly, I have been told by head teachers that sometimes physical education teachers have been appointed to teach the subject once they become unable to teach their own specialism – whether this is true or not, it reflects the cynicism over recruiting mathematics specialists.

Solutions.

So how can the fundamental problems be tackled? Many experts and practitioners have over the years identified possible solutions. These include tackling the negative view of the subject by making the curriculum more inspiring, challenging and equally important attractive and exciting – but not in a way that trivialises it. Too often there is a self- fulfilling prophecy aspect to the problem: teachers’ low expectations of learners and the labelling of learners, particularly at primary school, which switches pupils off.

One solution that has been advocated is the use of more small group work or one-to-one instruction over short periods of time BUT this takes us back to the issue of resources and the lack of qualified teachers. Until there is a sufficient flow of teachers the problems will remain. Even if the flow of teachers increases there are real issues about their retention: better salaries, less bureaucracy, paper work and testing and equally important, more freedom to enliven the curriculum.

Because of the additional challenges associated with the teaching of mathematics and mathematically related subjects more emphasis on the generic skills may be required at the initial teacher training stage. Greater attention paid to the teaching and learning process at this stage may prepare new recruits to cope more effectively with de-motivated learners and reduce the likelihood of early resignation. Whether any government is prepared to tackle these and other factors on a long-term basis is an open question and I fear, on past performance, highly unlikely -so the downward spiral will continue, with all the serious consequences that will result from this strategic flaw in the educational system.

Dr Richard Evans is a commentator on Maths and Science education.

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