Having a Higher doesn't add up to better maths

28th November 2014 at 00:00
Student teachers scored just 62 per cent in primary-level tests

Having a maths Higher does not necessarily make student teachers more expert in the subject than if they had a lower-level qualification, new research suggests.

Sandra McKechan and Stephen Day, from the University of the West of Scotland, analysed 2012 and 2013 cohorts of first-year undergraduate student teachers, finding that those with Higher maths did not perform significantly better in a test of their content knowledge than peers with a Standard grade Credit pass.

The student teachers sat tests at the level expected of most children in P7 but only managed to score an average of 62 per cent, regardless of their previous qualifications.

"Having a Higher in maths doesn't actually make you better at being able to do this work," Dr Day told TESS.

The researchers had been inspired by a 2012 report from the national Science and Engineering Education Advisory Group, which recommended making a maths Higher or equivalent the minimum entry requirement for primary teaching. The current minimum is the level immediately below, covering qualifications such as Intermediate 2 and Standard grade Credit.

Although student teachers with a Standard grade Credit pass did as well in the maths tests as Higher-qualified trainees, those with an Intermediate 2 did worse - even though the qualifications are of the same level.

Ms McKechan, who presented the findings at this week's Scottish Educational Research Association conference, said the tests were done before the 149 student teachers had received any maths input from their lecturers and that the results were not an indication of their future charges' attainment.

The researchers plan to continue their work and are keen to establish whether performance improves with the arrival at university of students who have been through the new National 5 maths qualification, which succeeds Standard grade Credit and Intermediate 2.

The findings follow a warning at the Scottish Parliament that having poorly qualified primary maths teachers could lead to economic damage.

Martin McCoustra, professor of chemical physics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, told an event at Parliament organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry: "Many of today's primary school teachers lack a Higher in maths, which colleagues and I feel undermines the quality of the teaching of mathematics.

"If primary school teachers aren't confident in their own arithmetic, which is the basis of all mathematics, they can't deliver quality teaching to pupils."

If Higher maths was not made mandatory, Professor McCoustra said, non-teachers with an expertise in maths should be drafted into schools, "to ensure that pupils are taught correctly and confidently, or to offer appropriate training for primary school teachers".

Such moves were "absolutely critical" for Scotland to address a shortage in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills and "our future economic success", he said. "If children don't crack fractions in primary school, they'll never have a good grasp of algebra and ultimately will struggle with studying any Stem subject."

The issue of primary teachers' maths qualifications fed into the major 2011 report Teaching Scotland's Future and was the subject of a recent consultation by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), which resulted in the decision to keep Standard grade Credit, Intermediate 2 and equivalent qualifications as the minimum entry requirement.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' body the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, said the GTCS had made it clear "that university recruitment processes should ensure appropriate levels of numeracy".

It had noted, too, a proposal by Scottish government advisory group Stemec that the entry requirement should be raised to Higher in the longer term.

"So, without seeking to minimise it as an issue, this has already been identified, there is work in progress to address it and, at a school level, you would struggle to find a school in Scotland that doesn't have numeracy as a core focus," Mr Dempster said.

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