Nip maths problem in the bud

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
The answer to the nation's maths crisis is not as easy as two plus two. The Government is responding to Professor Adrian Smith's recommendations in a number of ways, which, it is to be hoped, will add up to something substantial.

This week, Education Secretary Charles Clarke took on maths teacher supply.

His plans for pay rises and bigger bursaries for maths specialists are a signal that the Government is taking the issue seriously. But the result will be less than the sum of its parts. Not only will the proposals affect few teachers (see page 6), but maths teachers already earn more. Most schools use considerable flexibility in paying specialists, and maths teachers tend to get promoted more quickly. Financial incentives should make some difference to recruitment, but mathematicians can still earn far more in industry.

The biggest unknown in the equation is the content of the maths curriculum and what sort of person should teach it. Do we need to distinguish more clearly between higher mathematics and well-rounded numeracy? Are the two confused in the present curriculum, from the infant years up? How are children to distinguish the type of maths they need for daily life from the aspects which, although they may sharpen the brain, will only be required in certain fields? Do teachers teaching them need the same qualifications? It could be that a teacher who has struggled to gain their own maths GCSE would be better at deconstructing percentages for a class of 12-year-olds than someone with an instinctive feel for the subject. That teacher might also be better at finding numeracy's many connections across the curriculum than one who loves the beauty and purity of mathematics for itself.

As with most problems, the earlier caught the better. This week new research suggests that primary children's fear of maths can be nipped in the bud with bursts of individual teaching aimed at their specific difficulties. If their teachers' maths phobia can be similarly tackled, we might build a solid platform for secondary reforms.

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