Maths fires a distress flare

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Morale among principal teachers of maths has plummeted, leaving two out of three pessimistic about the future of their subject, a survey by the Scottish Mathematical Council reveals.

A lack of leadership nationally, absence of support locally and little chance to share experiences with colleagues are combining to drive down confidence among some of the most significant staff in secondaries.

More than half (54 per cent) of the 249 who replied to a questionnaire point to the isolation of maths leaders. Most (84 per cent) believe that decisions to scrap local authority advisory services have had a profound effect on their subject.

The uncomfortable findings emerge days before the latest verdict on maths teaching in primaries and secondaries by the inspectorate and an updated analysis of performance by researchers on the Assessment of Achievement Programme.

Dr Ian Anderson, chairman of the mathematical council and a Glasgow University mathematician, commented: "For many years the SMC has been concerned about the lack of support and leadership for mathematics teachers, and the results of this survey show clearly a real concern among teachers about the future of mathematics teaching.

"When 84 per cent of principal teachers feel that there is inadequate support for mathematics, and 77 per cent feel that mathematical education is not being driven forward in a thoughtful, positive way, then surely it is time for the Scottish Executive and local authorities to sit up and pay attention."

Dr Anderson said that Scotland was "blessed with an enthusiastic and motivated group of teachers" but they needed backing.

The survey, which had a 60 per cent response from maths PTs in the state and independent sectors, confirms that many departments are running short of teachers, although nothing like the chronic position south of the border.

Seven out of 10 departments have experienced shortages. A significant number have been at least one teacher short for long periods, forcing non-specialists to cover classes. The number of maths lessons has therefore been cut.

The main recruitment issues are lack of supply teachers for long-term absence and maternity cover; few applicants for advertised posts; and the poor quality of applicants and supply teachers.

Maths PTs also lament reduced opportunities for sharing ideas with colleagues because of cover difficulties and time constraints. Nearly eight out of 10 (79 per cent) believe they are missing the chance to meet with the Scottish Qualifications Authority on their subject, something 97 per cent would value.

Any idea of Standard grade being replaced by Intermediate 2, which is said to be valuable as an end-point in itself, is dismissed. "Problems with Intermediate 2 include the level of algebra, problem-solving, reasoning and the application of skills," the SMC states. Standard grade is a much better preparation for Higher, the PTs suggest.

Among other concerns are a perceived lowering of standards and the fragmentation of 5-14, Standard grade and Higher maths.

There is little support either for the move to faculties with 77 per cent believing that maths departments will be adversely affected. Now that assistant principal teachers have been removed, PTs complain about increased workload and too little time.

Like others, maths teachers admit they have problems being faculty heads in subjects where they are not specialists. They find it difficult to plan and develop the curriculum, implement new initiatives, allocate resources and encourage staff to take on tasks previously done by the subject PT.

Many senior staff have argued successfully for maths to be regarded as a single faculty but smaller schools fear that option is not open to them.

Leader 22 The Future of Mathematics Teaching in Scotland is published by the Scottish Mathematical Council.

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