Forward to the counting revolution

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Celia Hoyles talks to Paul Newman about the radical changes planned for post-14 maths

Celia Hoyles gives the distinct impression that if everyone cared as deeply about maths as she does, post-14 maths teaching wouldn't have lost its way.

And it has lost its way, badly. Last year, Professor Adrian Smith's report on post-14 maths made depressing reading. The DfES has taken swift remedial action. Appointed in 2004 as the Government's chief adviser for mathematics, Hoyles's task is to oversee sweeping reforms to the teaching of post-14 maths in UK schools. Nearly every aspect of the way post-14 maths is taught will change. The plans rely on creating a new curriculum that offers different pathways for different disciplines, and an ongoing commitment to teachers' professional development.

Revitalising post-14 maths is an intimidating challenge, but teachers fearful of being dictated to by a bureaucrat with pedagogic pretensions can relax, because it's a challenge Celia Hoyles is more than equipped to undertake. A celebrated mathematician and educator, she is a former maths teacher who moved into educational research, and was appointed Dean of Research and Consultancy at the Institute of Education, from which she is seconded by the DfES. Last year, her contemporaries acknowledged her achievements by awarding her the prestigious Hans Freudenthal medal, and the Queen presented her with an OBE.

Celebrated mathematician she may be, but maths teachers up and down the country will be asking themselves what she does to justify her salary and important-sounding title. Hoyles is quick to point out that maths is addressed by many sections of the DfES, and that she is part of the school curriculum unit, which also covers aspects of further and higher education.

She says that her primary objective is to generate a co-ordinated focus for maths across the education timeline. Tellingly, one thing she doesn't get involved in is money.

Maths teachers can expect radical changes to their working practices, with an expansion in the role played by ICT high on the agenda. Hoyles regards ICT as underused and still very much on the periphery in today's maths classrooms. She wants it to be central to the learning experience - making maths both fun and rigorous in the process.

"There's a huge potential in using computers and ICT in maths that has yet to be realised," she says. "There's a lot of possibilities with software, with group work, using web resources and trying to make maths come more alive and connected to students' lives."

Once teachers have made the initial effort, Hoyles stresses that ICT can make maths "so much more engaging for kids because they can learn from their mistakes. The whole point of having good software is that students can try something and they will get feedback that is mathematically rigorous and I think that's quite helpful. And it is happening, but it's going to move more to the centre. It's currently on the periphery."

Hoyles bristles with ideas for enlivening maths and introducing lessons based on real-world applications,Jbut she has no time for those who compromise on theory in order to make learning the subject fun.

She points to recently released learning materials based on the code-cracking exploits of Bletchley Park's Second World War mathematicians and their work with the Enigma machine as an example of how maths can be made interesting for students without being dumbed down.

Improved teaching practices are all very well, but they will amount to little if there is no one to actually teach maths. One of the biggest problems highlighted by the Smith report is a chronic shortage of qualified maths teachers. Smith recommended incentives to attract more people into teaching maths, but Hoyles is adamant that higher salaries are not the answer. "A worst-case example would be a bad maths teacher being paid more than a brilliant history teacher," she says. "I think you need some real career incentives and flexible working routes."

Two ways in which the DfES will inject incentives into maths teaching are by employing more advanced skills teachers, who are paid higher salaries than normal teachers, and establishing a national centre for excellence in the teaching of maths. Such a centre can play a critical role in developing maths teachers' skills. The government has earmarked pound;15 million over three years for the project and Hoyles is playing a major role in getting it off the ground.

The centre will provide teachers with sustained training in areas where they perhaps lack expert knowledge - geometry or statistics, for example - and help them to make the right choices in learning materials. "However competent we might be, there's always more we can learn, new insights we can have, or there's something we can share with other people," she says.

Progress in getting the centre off the ground has been slow to date, but there are signs of action. One of Hoyles's major responsibilities is to drive this initiative forward and she reveals that the two consortiums who are bidding to run the centre were interviewed in March.

What about that curriculum, though? Hoyles's vision is for a programme based on pathways and units. Students gravitating towards engineering, for example, would follow a pathway that allowed them to study units that were relevant to this. "If we want to have vocational routes we've got to have mathematics that's appropriate for those routes and we've got to think in terms of what that mathematics might be. If you are doing a pathway that leads to engineering, there may be a different set of units for mathematics that are not directly linked to engineering in a very narrow way, but appropriate to engineers, and that will use a lot of software, a lot of modelling. But if I want to be a graphic designer I might want to do more geometrical stuff or 2D and 3D mathematics. I would like to see that everyone feels they can learn and share and that will be in the long term, but in the medium term we've got to be developing these different pathways and that's going to be quite challenging."

"I'm a hopeless optimist, but I would hope that there will be different pathways with equal status," she says. "I just feel that we could do better in terms of keeping kids motivated, not in a narrowly instrumental sense, but exciting them in different ways, depending on what they like."

The UK's current maths malaise may well be just a blip, and the nation that gave Isaac Newton, George Boole and Bertrand Russell to the world will soon be producing talented mathematicians en masse once more. There's much hard work to do but, with Celia Hoyles at the controls, the future of maths teaching appears to be in safe hands.


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