A train full of maths teachers leaves Manchester at 4pm and heads south at 70mph. Another train full of education bureaucrats leaves Euston at 5:30pm at 30mph and heads north. When, if ever, will the two trains meet? Will they pass each other? Or will there be a crash?
Since the drop in maths A-level candidates last summer, this question has been plaguing mathematicians as organisations and teachers look at ways to halt the desertion of the subject by sixth-formers and undergraduates.
Sir Christopher Llewellyn-Smith, chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) says: "We desperately need to reverse the downward spiral in maths education. The under supply of numerate graduates means it is difficult to recruit new teachers of maths with good quality mathematical backgrounds."
Like any good maths problem, this is a story about numbers - or the lack of. Last year, A-level maths entries fell from 66,247 to 53,940, losing almost one-fifth of students. The knock-on effect was a 5.9 per cent slump in university maths admissions.
Fewer maths graduates means that those who might have chosen teaching are being wooed by better paid jobs in the private sector which is also hard-pressed for highly qualified maths graduates.
The Department for Education and Skills is quick to point to recent measures to attract maths teachers. A spokesperson said: "We have put in place incentives to boost recruitment: from September 2000, pound;6,000 training bursaries and pound;4,000 'golden hellos' for those going on to teach maths. We are paying off student loans for new maths teachers. There are various new routes into teaching which are helping to widen the pool of applicants."
Maths vacancies are now slowly being filled, with a rise in recruitment to teacher training up 16 per cent over the past two years. But the Government must act to ensure the long-term supply of properly qualified and motivated maths teachers.
Professor Celia Hoyles, chair of the Joint Mathematical Council, says:
"We've got problems at all levels. We've got an ageing workforce of maths teachers and we're not getting enough teachers of good quality through. We need highly qualified and enthusiastic teachers and there are not enough of them."
But financial inducements to students who know their worth on the open market can only go so far and in March, Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced the latest plan. The chosen solution, to open a National Centre for the Excellence in Mathematics, was based on recommendations in ACME's report, Continuing Professional Development for Teachers of Mathematics.
The report emphasised the urgent need for continuing professional development in an effort to breach what it described as a "closed loop" within maths education. ACME proposed opening a national centre for maths teachers in an effort to inject some much needed energy into an ailing vocation.
The new centre will act as an academy for continuing professional development, bringing together maths teachers and professionals from all levels, in an effort to revitalise the enthusiasm of teachers. It will cover all ages from pre-school to pensioners, providing teachers not only with further and sustained training but the exploration of different teaching methods. It will be similar in concept to the highly lauded National Centre for Excellence in Science Teaching, funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Professor Hoyles says: "The centre is for professional development at all levels - to try and co-ordinate so they have provision and time in their workplace. At the moment, they don't have that opportunity."
It will also look at how the subject is taught and lobby to shift the focus away from an assessment-based curriculum.
Rapid technological changes have introduced new tools such as graphics calculators into the classroom. Teachers must not only understand the impact of these on teaching but should understand the technology itself.
Continuing training as well as initial training will help teachers, especially those from different subject backgrounds.
The Mathematical Association's president, Barry Lewis, said: "We are very enthusiastic. It is a move that is long overdue."
At the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers last month, delegates lambasted the Government's concentration on testing and meeting targets. They said such emphasis could make pupils feel like failures.
Professor Adrian Smith, chair of the Post-14 Maths Inquiry, said: "There is a tension between the very real need to have assessment and between how often and how you do it. So it's reaching a level where it's distorting the teaching process. There needs to be a balance."
Professor Smith is advising on the costs and options for the new centre, including setting up local and regional maths centres.
The report Continuing Professional Development for Teachers is available at www.acme-uk.org More on the post-14 maths inquiry at www.mathsinquiry.org.uk