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How rote learning hurt maths skills

The centre for excellence intended to revitalise a subject in crisis has got off to a slow start, reports Madeleine Brettingham

The pound;15 million National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths celebrates its first anniversary this week. However, critics complain that it is not delivering.

It was one of a raft of measures introduced to try to save maths from crisis following a pivotal report three years ago by Professor Adrian Smith that highlighted the dearth of students taking A-level and degree-level maths and the lack of specialist teachers in schools.

Staff had high hopes for the centre of excellence, touting it as the magic wand that would invigorate the profession and revitalise maths teaching. A year later, Tony Gardiner, the former president of the Maths Association says: "Quite simply, it's not doing anything."

And despite the Government's apparent success in pushing up maths Sats results, England has made little progress compared to international standards of ability over the past 10 years.

The teaching centre had a difficult genesis. Launched with enthusiasm by its first director, David Burghes, it was left rudderless last autumn.

Colleagues say Professor Burghes, who resigned, was regarded as too outspoken and preoccupied with his own "collaborative practice" model of maths reaching.

Managers failed to appoint a successor for six months. Now, despite the arrival of the highly regarded Celia Hoyles as director, some in the maths community fear the centre has lost valuable time and momentum.

"All it seems to have done is set up a web forum and appointed some staff,"

one academic said. "For an outfit that trumpets itself as the saviour of maths teaching, it's hardly the best track record."

Staff admit they have a lot to prove. "We're not there yet," said Jane Imrie, an executive director. "And if anyone expected us to be after a year, I'll have to disappoint them. But we are many strides down the road."

The value of the centre, in her eyes, is its role in bringing teachers together to share ideas through its website with its maths Wikipedia and chat forums. "We don't offer resources or training," she said. "We want teachers to feel confident enough to revolutionise the subject themselves."

The idea of a bottom-up revolution is enticing. After all, some of the most interesting innovations have spread from grass-roots practice, from the Low Attainers in Mathematics Project (Lamp) with its focus on investigation, to the popular Smile programme.

Professor David Reynolds of Plymouth University sees the national centre as essentially a challenge to the profession. "We need to show we can do things by ourselves for ourselves," he said. "If that doesn't happen in a year or so, the danger is the state will meddle again."

Professor Hoyles has plenty of ideas, including a scheme to recruit and fast-track bright maths graduates into teaching, similar to the Teach First programme.

She is anxious to defend what has been achieved. "When you talk to people abroad, they are amazed by what the Government has done for maths here,"

she said.

The problem is that many of her contemporaries see the centre as essentially toothless. Given the scale of other reforms, that is not surprising. With coursework due to be scrapped and new double maths GCSEs and functional skills tests to come in from 2010, not to mention the creation of pound;5,000 "golden hellos" for new teachers, ministers have not sat still since the release of Professor Smith's report.

Progress has been rapid. The number of 14-year-olds reaching the expected standard at key stage 3 has risen 20 percentage points in 10 years; the proportion of pupils achieving good grades at maths GCSE has risen from 48 to 53 per cent in five years; A-level applications are up after a six-year slump and the numbers studying maths at university has risen by two-thirds over five years. And there are 2,300 new maths teachers this year, compared to 1,400 in 2001.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, said the Government was not complacent about progress and would be putting a "relentless focus" on individual achievement. Every Child Counts will offer one-to-one tuition to 300,000 pupils a year by 2010.

Professor Smith agrees the Government has been "pretty immaculate" in delivering the details of his report. "Given the scale of the problem, we cannot let up," he said. "But we've a national adviser, the Training and Development Agency is putting out the right incentives and there are signs we are beginning to turn things round."

However, whereas the centre has been accused of lethargy, government measures have been criticised as rash and unfocused. Plans for functional maths have met particular opposition: academics argue that problem-solving skills do not come cheap, with ill-conceived, pseudo-vocational courses based on plumbing and accountancy.

Further questions have been raised because, despite England's supposedly record-breaking Sats results, our 14- and 15-year-olds have barely advanced in a decade in international comparisons of maths ability. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study places England about 18th in the rankings. The Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures key skills, puts us 16th. It must concern ministers that apparent improvements still leave us languishing behind high-achieving nations such as Finland and Japan.

Professor Margaret Brown, of the Advisory Committee on Maths Education, said: "There is evidence of a small increase at Year 5, but among older children we are still waiting for the proof. It seems likely that number skills have improved, but problem-solving has actually decreased."

This point is crucial. The gains made from the numeracy strategy's rote learning approach will not produce the engineers and scientists that Gordon Brown wants to power the economy.

The recruitment of enthusiastic teachers and their continuing professional development has become more important than ever. It is a golden opportunity for the national centre of excellence.

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