So who's spinning the maths yarns?

7th November 1997 at 00:00
I endorse fully Tony Gardiner's plea "Beware of the spin on maths stories" (TES, October 24) for "more accurate and informative reporting of news relating to mathematics". However, Tony writes that the Office for Standards in Education, in a report on the teaching of number in three inner-urban local authorities, states that there were "endless sins of commission or omission".

The use of the word "endless" in this context surprises me as it is certainly a very emotive term. In what sense were the sins endless? Does it mean that during the course of the inspections the number of sins committed was infinite? But that would be mathematically impossible as the time span of the inspections was presumably finite. If it means that the same sins were repeated frequently, then why was this not said in a more factual and less emotive way?

And, if the word was not in the report, why then did Tony use it? To me, the use of the word "endless" in this way might be expected in the kind of popular journalism which Tony decries, but not in an objective OFSTED report nor in a letter written by a professional mathematician - especially the president of the Mathematical Association.

Tony also writes that "some schools did not expect pupils to learn times-tables and number facts by heart" and "there was very little good teaching involving work on fractions".

He places the reason for this on the "explicit advice given by Her Majesty's Inspectors in the 1980s". This is a more serious issue, at least to me personally, as I was the HMI staff inspector for mathematics at the end of the 1980s and was never aware that such advice had been given.

In fact, in Mathematics from 5 to 16, a booklet published by HMI in 1985 as part of the Curriculum Matters Series, exactly the opposite advice was given with regard to times-tables and number facts.

Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division number facts were said by HMI to be important and worth learning. Surely this is clear enough.

Of course, the HMI document is very short, dealing more with general principles rather than with methods of teaching particular topics, and so does not say much about "good teaching involving work in fractions", but there is nothing in it to warrant the accusation that the explicit advice of HMI was to blame for the lack of such work.

I hope Tony is well enough informed about recent developments in education to know that what he calls "the ill-considered reforms instigated by those at the very top of the education system" did not originate from HMI. Of course, he does not blame HMI for these reforms, but I make this point in order to avoid any misunderstanding by readers caused by the earlier mention of HMI.

However, I agree fully with Tony's support of the teachers, whom I have always considered the most essential part of the educational system.


Elm Cottage 55 Lower Road Chalfont St Peter Buckinghamshire

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