Forget about great curriculum, where are the teachers?

27th February 2004 at 00:00
I am neither a teacher nor an educationist, yet even I can see that school mathematics is in the middle of a massive slump. Adrian Smith's report on post-14 mathematics comes in the nick of time, offering the Government half a chance to act now and revive this ailing subject, but my fear is that the Government will tinker with the curriculum and claim success, while failing to address the central problem, namely a shortage of specialist maths teachers.

The quality of every minute of every lesson in every class in every school depends absolutely on the teacher. Even the greatest maths curriculum on the planet is pointless unless there are sufficient teachers to implement it.

We already have some great maths teachers in British schools, but simply not enough of them. Somebody needs to find out why so few people are applying to become maths teachers and why so many are leaving the profession, and then somebody needs to take ultimate responsibility for reversing the situation.

A failure to solve the crisis in maths teaching will inevitably lead to a less numerate population, a less qualified workforce, fewer science and engineering graduates and fewer inventors and innovators, all of which will seriously affect the UK economy.

In fact, there is a nasty negative feedback loop, inasmuch as employers snap up anybody with a respectable maths qualification, so maths graduates are tempted away from teaching, so there are fewer qualified maths teachers, so there are fewer inspired pupils and fewer maths graduates, which means that industry offers them even higher salaries, and even fewer go into teaching, and so on.

On the bright side, sooner or later there will be a time when our decline in mathematics is so dire that it will seriously harm Britain's economy, which will lead to more unemployment and fewer jobs for mathematicians, thereby encouraging them to become teachers.

I hope that somebody will heed Adrian Smith's report before we get to that stage, but the next few years will be critical and urgent action has to be taken.

Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem, is a writer and broadcaster specialising in maths and science

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