'The government is struggling to recruit maths teachers – it should start to listen to those at the chalkface'

The challenge of persuading enough maths graduates that they want a career in the classroom can seem Olympian

Helen Ward

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It is summer. And while watching the world’s best athletes leaping from high boards into deep pools, a headteacher’s thoughts will naturally turn to why it seems easier to find people willing to risk their necks doing a three-and-a-half forward somersault with a twist from a height of 10 metres, than it is to find someone willing to take Year 9 maths.

A recent survey by the Mathematical Association (MA) found that fewer than half of maths departments were fully staffed for September: 18 per cent said they still required two or more teachers.

It isn’t for a lack of interest in maths as a subject: in 2014, maths overtook English to become the most popular A level subject, and this continued in 2015.

And it isn’t for a lack of interest in teaching from maths graduates: Ucas teacher training figures for 2015 showed that more than 10 per cent of mathematics undergraduates applied to become teachers – only those taking languages or education-related degrees were more likely to apply.

But however many come in, it doesn't seem to be enough to plug the gaps of those leaving – especially as the government wants even more maths teachers. At a time when demand is naturally increased through a booming pupil population, the government also has an ambition to make maths compulsory until 18.

'Cut the workload'

The MA survey prompted existing maths teachers to share ideas on what would encourage them to stay in the profession – or what would attract new colleagues. These include reducing workload. Behaviour, a particular issue for a compulsory subject, was also mentioned on the TES Facebook page.

Peter Ransom, chair of the MA, has his own suggestions: reduce contact time for the first three years of teaching, increase the bursary (currently up to £25,000) but stagger it over five years – to encourage teachers to stay in the profession – and build a community of maths teachers who support each other to provide professional development as teachers are starting out. Government funding for two years' membership of a professional association would be one way of doing this.

“There are other professions that offer higher salaries than teaching and so we no doubt lose people to those careers, but the rewards of teaching are more than just financial: it's the joy of working with young people, and every day is different. I always got a buzz as I went through the school gates: OK, it wasn't always there at the end of the day, but not every day is perfect,” he said.

Maths is a wonderful subject – it is popular, useful and it opens the doors to a huge variety of careers.

But if the government is serious about increasing the number of mathematicians in this country, it needs to listen to the people who have the task of creating them.

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