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'The acute shortage of excellent maths teachers is down to the government – here's my solution'

A radical review of school incentives and more collaboration between schools, universities and government – James Handscombe, a sixth-form head (pictured), provides his strategy to remedy the shortage of excellent maths teachers

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A radical review of school incentives and more collaboration between schools, universities and government – James Handscombe, a sixth-form head (pictured), provides his strategy to remedy the shortage of excellent maths teachers

Lynne McClure wrote last week that all students should receive excellent maths teaching and, as she has done more than almost anyone to achieve this goal, her words are to be taken seriously.

The problem is that there is an acute shortage of excellent maths teachers – a shortage driven by a lack of suitably qualified graduates.

This is something that has been acknowledged by successive governments and which has been the subject of a variety of policy initiatives. These policies have been laudable and have had varying degrees of tactical success, but the problem remains because the overall strategy is lacking.

The logic is straightforward. There are not enough excellent maths teachers, so there are not enough students receiving excellent maths education, so there are not enough excellent maths graduates and so, inexorably, there are not enough excellent maths teachers.

The only way to get out of this cycle is to acknowledge that the primary goal of maths teaching is to educate maths teachers. If we don’t achieve this then there is no hope of achieving anything else in the long term and so educating the next generation of educators must be prioritised above all else.

To that end, I have a three-point plan:

1. Accept more students on to top-flight maths undergraduate courses

If you look at the entry requirements for different degrees, you would be forgiven for thinking that as a country we have a deficit of historians (for example) and just too many mathematicians to find jobs for. If you wish to study history at the University of Cambridge you can expect to be asked for A*AA at A level. For maths the equivalent offer is A*A*A and two 1s at STEP.

The pattern is similar at other universities: maths courses are commonly one grade more daunting than other subjects. Step one is for universities to accept 10 per cent more mathematicians on to their courses and reduce their grade requirements accordingly.

This may mean a wider range of ability and greater need for differentiation in teaching but it is an investment in higher quality applicants in the future because more maths graduates means more teachers with maths qualifications and therefore more students who have had excellent teaching.

2. Encourage the best mathematicians to become teachers

When I was at university, I was encouraged to consider banking as a career, to go into the civil service or to continue into academia: I was not told to look into teaching. Worse, when I did embark on a PGCE and returned to my old secondary school for a week’s observation, one of my ex-teachers said: “Why would you go into teaching – surely you can do something better?”

Step two is for universities and schools to portray teaching as an elite career, as the difference-making vocation, as an experience to which the brightest and best should aspire.

3. Structure mathematics teaching to maximise the number of students who will be ready to study the subject at university

This means that every stage of education should be preparing students not just to succeed in the end-of-stage examinations but in the stage beyond.

This requires a radical review of school incentives: the measure of success for a primary school has to include success for its students at Key Stage 3, not just Key Stage 2, and GCSE teachers should be rewarded if their charges are successful at A level as well as for the grades gained at 16.

Similarly I, as a sixth-form teacher, would expect to be applauded if my students do well in their degrees and castigated if they peak at 18. Step 3 is teaching to create mathematicians rather than to pass maths exams.

None of these steps are trivial. They all require collaboration between schools, universities and government, and they all present problems and barriers that need to be overcome. But if we are determined to fix this problem then we must commit to a long-term, ambitious strategy.

Otherwise, we’re just hoping that it will fix itself (and you don’t need a maths teacher to tell you that that isn’t going to happen.) 

James Handscombe is principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

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