Ministers fail to do the maths

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Professor Adrian Smith's report on post-14 maths education is unusual in that it is the fruit of an inquiry set up not by the Department for Education and Skills but by the Treasury. Its origin lies in Chancellor Gordon Brown's concern that growing demand for graduates with maths skills is being increasingly frustrated by a shortfall in supply. It is perhaps the inquiry's independence from the DfES that makes Professor Smith's conclusions so interesting. His report deserves close study as much for its criticism of the department's failure to collect reliable data on the current and future need for maths teachers as for its analysis of the scale of the crisis in maths education, or its proposed solutions.

The teacher-supply picture is alarming enough. To meet the shortfall we would need to attract into teacher training more than 40 per cent of the annual UK output of maths graduates for years to come. An impossible task.

Professor Smith pulls few punches. The overwhelming majority of teachers, employers and universities no longer regard the maths curriculum and assessment framework for 14 to 19-year-olds as fit for the job. And there is widespread recognition that the new AS and A2 exams have been "a disaster for mathematics".

This is damning. The professor puts forward some good ideas on how these critical issues can begin to be addressed. Had the DfES not scrapped its four-yearly survey to determine the number of qualified secondary subject teachers in 2000 we would have known the true shortfall of maths specialists years ago and could have acted sooner. Nor do we know much about the current crop of graduates taking maths PGCE courses. How many, for example, have a degree in psychology rather than maths? We don't know.

Good policy-making requires good-quality data. Professor Smith is not impressed and nor are we.

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