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Professor puts fizz into maths equation

The chair of the Government's inquiry says inspirational teaching is the key to selling the subject. Philippa White reports

"Maths enables you to land on the moon, make films such as Jurassic Park, and have a mobile phone. But while Bob Winston makes people excited about medicine, and David Attenborough does the same for small furry animals, nobody is telling us how exciting maths is," says Professor Adrian Smith.

As the newly-announced chair of the Government's post-14 mathematics inquiry, Professor Smith hopes to do something about this.

The inquiry was set up to tackle widespread unease at the state of maths education. It will recommend changes to the curriculum, qualifications and pedagogy to ensure students have the maths skills needed by employers and by further and higher education.

The Government has already agreed to back a similar centre of excellence for science teaching which the Wellcome Trust is supporting with pound;25 million.

For Professor Smith, 56, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, inspirational teachers are a large part of the solution.

He grew up in Dawlish, south Devon, half-way between Torquay and Exeter, and attended Teignmouth grammar. He found he was good at maths, enjoyed it, and benefited from an "excess" of talented, motivating maths teachers.

"It was a combination of inspirational teachers - those with that capacity to keep you wanting to know more - and their sheer competence in teaching it," he said.

After a gap year working as a computer programmer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, he read maths at Selwyn College, Cambridge, from 1965-68.

Professor Smith moved to University College London for an MSc and PhD in statistics, and then took various teaching jobs before being made professor of maths at Nottingham University in 1977.

Recruitment and retention of good teachers is high on his agenda. "There are many other attractions for maths graduates so the problem of getting the brightest, the best and most charismatic into teaching is a major issue."

Professor Smith was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001.

The inquiry is expected to report by June 2003.

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