Issues Associated with the Teaching of Mathematics

Richard Evans is concerned about the quality of new maths teachers.

A recent feature in the Observer (1) highlighted some of the consequences of the current recession namely the migration of people from the private sector in areas such as banking, IT, PR executives and journalism into teaching. 13,500 career changers have applied for teacher training programmes – this represents a 35% increase over the past year. Coupled with more applications from graduates this has made entering teaching a more competitive activity. So how does this increased flow of teachers align with the impending massive cuts in the public services? Will it be good news for subject areas that have experienced shortages over many decades e.g. engineering, mathematics, modern languages and the physical sciences? I fear not as many are not qualified in these subjects nor are they necessarily dedicated, long term, to the teaching profession. Although I am not necessarily equating well-qualified with effective teaching it is important that the teacher has commitment, experience and knowledge of mathematics beyond the level they are teaching. Previous attempts to tackle low recruitment into mathematics, and the other shortage subjects have had little impact on the problem. Government initiatives have included:

  • Golden hellos.
  • On-job training.
  • Paying off student loan debts.
  • Updating courses for returners to the teaching profession
  • Salaries for student teachers.

Worthy?

Worthy as these initiatives have been, fundamental questions persist about such activities in particular,

‘What is the true motivation of the applicants?’ Similar concerns must surely exist about this movement from the private sector. Could it be just a short term occurrence? Over the years the lack of qualified, motivated and talented people entering the teaching profession has precipitated greater dependence on:

  • Supply teachers.
  • Teachers from overseas.
  • Under-qualified teachers.

I would like to focus on the issue of supply teachers as this country is one of the very few that uses this approach to tackle teacher cover and shortages. Ofsted reports (2) have identified this as often a contributing factor to the low attainment and poor standard of mathematics teaching in this country. Other research has also shown that the use of under qualified teachers has a detrimental effect on the subject (3) suggesting that students required, on average, two extra lessons to mitigate the effects of one given by a supply teacher.
The Teacher Development Agency (TDA) provided the following information on support.

Information on support available for maths and science teachers from the Teacher Development Agency website is given below:

Postgraduate teacher training:

The demand for maths teachers means that postgraduate trainees in England can access additional funding fortheir initial teacher training. Postgraduate maths trainees can get:

  • A tax-free bursary of £9,000 (£225 per week).
  • A £5,000 golden hello payment, when they complete their induction year.

Training bursary:

Trainees may be entitled to a tax free bursary from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA). The size of the bursary depends on when you start training and what subject you train to teach.

Here are the new training bursary rates for eligible postgraduate trainee teachers starting eligible postgraduate ITT courses on or after 1 August 2010:

Tax free bursary amount: £9,000 if the following subjects are taught:

  • Physics.
  • Chemistry.
  • Engineering.
  • Design and technology (including food technology).
  • ICT.
  • Manufacturing
  • Mathematics.
  • Diploma – Information technology.
  • Diploma – Engineering.
  • Diploma – Construction and the built environment.
  • Diploma – Environment and land based studies
  • Diploma – Manufacturing and product design.

Eligible postgraduate maths trainees can also access additional funding in Wales too.

If your degree contained only some, or no, elements of mathematics, you should take additional training in maths before starting your postgraduate initial teacher training.

Teaching and the cuts

So how will this increased interest in teaching stack up against the impending massive cuts in the public sector? For obvious political reasons announcements about the likely cuts has been somewhat muted because of the approaching election. However the reality is whatever party is elected significant cuts will be made across all education and training sectors with statements already leaked that figures in excess of a billion pounds for universities and for schools are on the cards. In addition, proposals about the future funding of colleges could include the introduction of financial contributions from students. A recent survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) has identified cuts in college budgets of up to 25%. It is important to remember that colleges are the biggest providers of technical and vocational education and training as well as the Skills for Life (SfL) programme.

Staff redundancies could be in excess of 7000 and many colleges will be forced to close or merge. That will lead to the sector being reconfigured and will have a negative impact on vocational and technical subjects many of which require experienced and skilled teachers of mathematics and numeracy. Staff cuts will be inevitable as salaries represent the largest proportion of the budget of institutions. The first staff cuts will no doubt involve teaching assistants and ancillaries but the scale of cuts required to address the massive public finances deficit will precipitate cuts across all staffing levels and types.

Shortages.

So where does this leave subjects that have experienced shortages? Would any government continue to introduce more discriminatory measures to attract and retain teachers of mathematics bearing in mind many previous initiatives have failed and been very cost ineffective. Mathematics and numerical subjects are pivotal to the success of the developing apprenticeship programmes, diplomas in construction, engineering and others that contain mathematical content. Equally important is the urgent need to improve teaching of the subject itself and key areas associated with numeracy and functional mathematics. So it will be interesting to see if the exodus from the private sector to the teaching profession will have a positive and long term benefit for the shortage in mathematics and mathematically related subjects in spite of the negative impact of public sector cuts.

Conclusion.

Unless the government is clear about what new industries/technologies it is going to prioritise and support to update/re-focus the British economy there won’t be a renewed “jobs focus” to the importance of mathematics. That is the kind of message needed to get public attention to the importance of mathematics which should then feed into focusing an improving mathematics teaching, student uptake of mathematics and mathematical subjects and improved attainment and application of the subject in the economy/jobs.

References:

  • (1) Observer. 7th March 2010. P. 18.
  • (2) Ofsted Report 16. (2002)
  • (3) Mathematics Enhancement Programme. (MEP). (2000).

Richard Evans is a regular contributor to Numeracy Briefing

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