'All students should receive excellent maths teaching – not just those in specialist maths schools'

With acute maths teacher shortages, there's a risk that specialist maths provision will only increase the divide between rich and poor standards in maths teaching, writes the director of Cambridge Mathematics

Lynne McClure

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On Monday 23 January, Theresa May announced a £170 million package to establish “Institutes of Technology” and specialist maths schools in every British city, to ensure the country “stands tall in the world” after Brexit.

By using the free-school model, the government plans to expand the provision of specialist maths education in every UK city, using the existing Exeter and King's College London Mathematics Schools as examples to follow.

At Cambridge Mathematics we welcome the news that the government is recognising the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects, specifically maths, and the impact the subjects have on the prosperity of the nation.

By investing in maths education around the country, the UK can hopefully begin to catch up with some of the other developed nations which have already invested heavily in post-16 maths education and are seeing greater productivity in these areas as a result.

The two specialist maths schools named as models perform highly in mathematics at A level. Professor Alison Wolf, governor of King's College London Mathematics School, says that "specialist schools work, not just because students find their tribe and learn from each other, but because teachers do the same". 

They also select not only on mathematical potential, but on how much value pupils will get from the experience – the differential between their current opportunities for maths learning and what the specialist school can offer as a high-quality alternative.

The maths teaching divide

However, in a time of acute mathematics teacher shortages, there is a risk that this will only increase the divide between rich and poor standards in maths teaching, driving a wedge between differently achieving students in terms of the kind of exciting opportunities to study rich mathematics that they might experience. 

We at Cambridge Mathematics are firmly committed to championing access to excellent mathematics teaching for every student, not just the most able, and certainly not just those in certain schools. 

We are an evidence-based organisation, and what the current research tells us is that setting or streaming pupils may have a small positive effect on the top-achieving pupils but it is to the greater detriment of middle and lower-achieving pupils, with a stronger effect for the most disadvantaged.

We receive this news, therefore, with mixed emotions: we are pleased that the government has recognised the importance of an excellent mathematical education in terms of the future economic prospects of Britain, but cautious as to how we might encourage our brightest mathematicians without detriment to the mathematical education of all others. 

A study commissioned by National Numeracy in 2014 suggested that low numeracy levels, which affect around 80 per cent of adults, could be costing the UK around £20.2 billion a year, or around 1.3 per cent of GDP.

The questions we would like to ask are crucial ones: how does the government plan to recruit for these schools, what will be the admissions process, and how will it ensure it is as unbiased as possible?

What we know from our international work is that only a tiny minority of individuals feel comfortable self-identifying as mathematicians.

It is a significant goal of the global mathematics community to ensure that we develop confidence as well as competence in the subject – and one which we hope Theresa May will bear in mind.

Lynne McClure is director of Cambridge Mathematics, a collaborative partnership between Cambridge University Press, the University of Cambridge’s mathematics and education faculties and Cambridge Assessment 

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Lynne McClure

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