On the Map - Trainees' mathematical skills - Signs for the future of maths teaching

22nd April 2011 at 01:00

This research into the mathematical knowledge of trainee teachers from eight countries reminded me of the Tom Lehrer song New Math, a hit tune of my youth that dealt with subtracting 173 from 342 in decimal and octal.

The lyrics arose from the panic about maths teaching across the western world after the USSR launched the first manned space mission ahead of the US. This panic, incidentally, also led to the US spending billions of dollars to land the first man on the moon in 1969.

What are we to make of these rankings, produced by the CfBT Education Trust? The picture is of primary trainees in England performing around the bottom end of a group of European nations, and less well than those in Russia, China and Japan. Among trainee secondary maths teachers, the group from England fared less well, coming sixth out of seven, with only Hungary, where there may have been sampling issues, faring worse.

Secondary trainees in England also scored less well than the others around the world, despite being selected to train to teach maths. Perhaps our degree system breeds specialist, not generalist, mathematicians who are comfortable with, say, algebra but not geometry.

The recently announced Coates review of teaching qualifications and standards may need to consider the evidence from this and other previous surveys, such as those by Professor Adrian Smith and Sir Peter Williams. But, with most sixth-formers abandoning maths after GCSE, standards for primary teachers are unlikely to rise unless students become both more confident in their mathematical knowledge and understanding and study it to a deeper level.

For secondary teachers, the Teach First scheme will have attracted some high-quality mathematicians, but as the report points out, a training course focused too tightly on teaching offers little scope to enhance mathematical knowledge.

If ministers want both better and more knowledgeable teachers, they will have to rethink how we select and train teachers. And they might make QTS subject-specific since, in practice, anyone can teach maths in a secondary school, regardless of the subject or phase they were trained for originally.

John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education

Performance in maths tests among teacher trainees in primary school*

China: 43.1

Czech Republic: 29.2

England: 32.2

Finland: 33

Hungary: 35.1

Ireland: 33.9

Japan: 52.9

Russia: 41.7

*Mean scores across a range of tests in which the maximum number of marks was 60. Source: CfBT Education Trust.

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