The Mathematical Association tweeted plans to meet with the Department for Education earlier this month and asked its followers to name the most serious issue in maths education and the possible solutions.
Teachers responded en masse. Recruitment, retention and workload – the usual suspects – surfaced in the thread, together with some subject-specific issues. Here are some of the challenges identified.
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1. A crammed curriculum
The sheer volume of content to be taught at every level was by far the most common response. This was especially evident for primary teachers – a “crammed, rushed primary curriculum”, as one teacher put it. And many respondents were concerned about the pace leaving some children struggling to keep up and not allowing teachers to explore topics in-depth.
"If they don’t 'get it' in the lesson, it’s gone! In [key stage 2], there’s often nothing solid to build on because of the pace in KS1," one respondent said.
You're the nth person to say this. What would you chop out?— The Mathematical Association (@Mathematical_A) October 20, 2019
Asked what could reasonably be removed from KS1 and KS2, teachers mentioned some elements such as fractions, long division, conversions and others. Roman numerals were the target of many responses.
The introduction of Roman numerals baffled everyone.— The Mathematical Association (@Mathematical_A) October 20, 2019
According to Hannah Stoten, a maths teacher and consultant who blogs as the Quirky Teacher, one of the areas of focus should be ensuring children have enough practice.
She told Tes: “it’s something that concerned me when I first went into teaching, but people didn’t really understand the sheer volume of practice you need in maths. Especially for children with SEND, children who struggle with working memory.”
For Ms Stoten, it’s not just a problem of lack of time and crowded curriculum – teachers could also help themselves, she suggested.
“We could remove some elements of the curriculum. But what could we do to improve the efficiency of our teaching side?”
2. KS4 and KS5 assessment
At secondary level, maths teachers also complained of problems with KS4 and KS5 assessment. The assessment structure, they said, could disadvantage weaker students. The Mathematical Association pointed out that while GCSE-tier content would not probably be up for discussion, A level was "worth exploring" as there were problems with the 2019 assessment.
3. Workload and retention
Retention of teachers, often driven out by excessive workload, was a problem brought up by many respondents.
"Pressure and workload around KS4 performance [are] too high, driving people out," one teacher commented.
The Mathematical Association said that teachers of core subjects certainly faced more pressure from the accountability measures.
Another teacher added that recruitment strategies involving bursaries to attract graduates didn't really work, as workload still forced some teachers to leave after the training years. Paperwork, and a focus on exam results leading to teaching to the test, also got a mention.
The teachers of core subjects certainly face more pressure from the accountability measures.— The Mathematical Association (@Mathematical_A) October 19, 2019
On the subject of retention, bonuses for beginning teachers of in-demand subjects, which were recently criticised by the National Society for Education in Art and Design, were discussed by some teachers in the thread.
While some pointed out that bonuses and grants could ease the retention problem, others argued they are not the way to solve the issue and that all teachers should be treated equally.
The Mathematical Association added that introducing bonuses for certain subjects had the potential of deflating staff morale, a view it said was shared by "most" school leaders.
I disagree with this, the relationship between subjects is asymmetric & each make demands of staff regardless. All teachers should be valued equally. That expectations on maths (& English) teachers are higher is a structural issue to be solved, not salved with higher pay...— Darren Macey (@Darrenmacey) October 20, 2019
4. Training and CPD
Training and CPD also surfaced in the discussion.
Some respondents brought up issues in initial teacher training.
"There are just not enough mathematicians who want to get into teaching," one teacher said. "A formal programme of (statutory?) subject-specific PD leading to a qualification would be very helpful in supporting early career teachers."
As for the quality of ongoing CPD, a few respondents brought up the issue of in-house training being “too generic” and not supportive of subject-specific development.
5. Coping with a can't-do attitude
For some respondents, some students and their parents have a counterproductive attitude towards maths.
One teacher said: "For primary teachers, it’s the huge amount of parents who ‘can’t do maths’ and ‘never could do maths’ and pass this on to their children as soon as they struggle."
The Mathematical Association declined to comment further before its meeting with the Department for Education.