Beware of the spin on maths stories

24th October 1997 at 01:00
I'd like to bring to your attention an issue which was raised at the meeting of the Mathematical Association Council on October 11.

As the oldest of all the subject teachers' associations, we would like to make a plea for more accurate and informative reporting of news relating to mathematics. Serious newspapers regularly give the impression that they are blaming the many undeniable shortcomings in our educational system on ordinary classroom teachers.

Much of the problem stems from a thoroughly unprofessional willingness on the part of journalists to do the bidding of those who manage the news released by government agencies.

To give just one recent example, the publication by the Office for Standards in Education of The teaching of number in three inner-urban LEAs describes endless sins of commission or omission in the schools they observed. (For example, "some schools did not expect pupils to learn times-tables and number facts by heart" or "there was very little good teaching involving work on fractions".) However, the OFSTED report makes (and the subsequent newspaper reports obediently followed suit) no attempt to analyse why such regrettable practices have become so common - with the consequent impression that teachers are being wilfully incompetent!

In reality, many of these practices stem from explicit advice given by Her Majesty's Inspectors in the 1980s: that is, from OFSTED's immediate predecessor!

By failing to point out such ironic details, journalists leave their readers with the impression that the difficulties currently faced by our schools are largely of the schools' own making. In reality, the job faced by mathematics teachers has been made almost impossible in recent years by the ill-considered "reforms" instigated by those at the very top of the education system.

After the trumpet blasts accompanying the initial introduction of such changes, teachers have been repeatedly left struggling to do the best they can for their pupils - only to find that, years later, the inevitable consequences are subsequently blamed on them.

TONY GARDINER

President The Mathematical Association 259 London Road Leicester

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