Boost your retention, reduce the subtraction

9th June 2006 at 01:00
A more imaginative formula for incentives is needed to halt the maths teacher brain-drain, writes Doug French

Mathematics is an important part of the curriculum, yet there are widespread concerns about standards of achievement and the unpopularity of the subject. The serious decline in the numbers taking A-level maths after Curriculum 2000 has not been reversed, and the lack of confidence and enthusiasm for the subject in our society are both indicators that all is not well, in spite of improving GCSE results.

Of course, there is much to commend - there are some outstanding maths departments and inspiring teachers who do a remarkable job, often in very challenging circumstances - but why is it so difficult to recruit and retain teachers?

In spite of many reports and recommendations over the past 50 years, the shortage of maths teachers persists. All schools have significant problems in recruiting suitable teachers. It is not uncommon to find secondary schools with few, if any, appropriately trained and qualified maths teachers.

The Training and Development Agency for schools (previously the Teacher Training Agency) has succeeded in increasing recruitment to teacher-training in secondary maths in recent years, but a substantial number of people leave during training, and others who achieve qualified teacher status (QTS) leave the profession within a few years.

There appears to be little specific data on the extent of the loss of maths teachers, but there is abundant anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is a serious problem. Surprisingly, it appears that it is not part of the TDA's brief to monitor the retention problem, and government policies on workload and pupil behaviour seem to be making little impact on the continuing shortage.

The focus should be on solving the retention problem as well as recruitment. Many of the factors that cause people to leave teaching are the same as those that deter people from considering teaching as a career in the first place. Tackling the causes of poor retention would boost recruitment.

The Mathematical Association has just published a report, Career Patterns of Secondary Mathematics Teachers, based on research by Clare Tickly and Teresa Smart of London university's institute of education and funded by the Gatsby charitable foundation. They interviewed a sample of secondary maths teachers together with a matched set of people who had left the profession to identify some of the factors that influence teachers in making decisions about their careers.

Not surprisingly, no single cause for leaving teaching emerged, but they found that the "career mathematics teacher" was characterised by a wish to maintain and communicate an enthusiasm for the subject. The report notes that this acts as "the reason for becoming a teacher and also the reason for leaving" when conditions make it impossible to sustain.

That is true of teachers of all subjects, so to what extent is maths special or different? It is a difficult subject to teach well, and pupils'

negative attitudes exacerbate behaviour problems. There has been a plethora of often ill-managed changes in maths and excessive pressure on teachers to improve examination results because maths is a core subject. These factors limit the enthusiasm of both pupil and teacher and make it more difficult to achieve the fluency and understanding needed to use maths confidently.

The report recommends that "constraints on effective mathematics teaching are minimised" and emphasises the value of giving teachers time to work together and engage in subject-related professional development to keep up their enthusiasm. To this end, I propose three steps that would make a big difference:

* better management of change and less of it.

* reduction in the excessive burdens that the assessment and accountability systems create for teachers and pupils.

* substantial reduction in class sizes and some increase in non-contact time to improve conditions for teachers.

The first two steps could save considerable sums of money by reducing the vast amounts spent on the assessment and accountability systems and by government agencies. They would reduce some of the immediate pressures on teachers and release money to reduce class sizes substantially. They would also give teachers more time to do the job properly, including professional development, as well as time to relax and engage in other interests outside school. Teaching maths would then become a much more attractive career which people would not want to give up. And, at last, we might begin to solve the retention problem.

Letters 26

Doug French is president of the Mathematical Association and has worked as a school teacher and teacher-trainer for many years. The report, Career Patterns of Secondary Mathematics Teachers, is available free from the association: telephone 0116 221 0013; or email:

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