Take away shackles on maths teachers

7th February 2003 at 00:00
The taskforce headed by Mike Tomlinson set up to look at the long-term future of 14-19 education (TES, January 24) is due to report at the end of the year.

Less widely heralded is the inquiry into post-14 mathematics headed by Professor Adrian Smith, due to report in June. This was prompted by concern about the country's need for a numerate workforce and comes in the wake of the dramatic downturn in the numbers taking A-level maths following Curriculum 2000.

A-level examinations based on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's new criteria for AS and A-level maths will not take place until the summer of 2006 and now we have talk of yet more changes.

The Mathematical Association regards it as crucial that the Smith inquiry should address the root causes of widespread poor performance and negative attitudes towards mathematics. Foremost among these is the serious shortage of suitably qualified mathematics teachers, which jeopardises all attempts to improve the quality of pupils' learning, including the key stage 3 strategy.

Radical measures are needed which acknowledge the reasons why it is so difficult to recruit and retain talented people to teach mathematics.

Workload, pupil behaviour and pay are critical issues for all teachers, but, in addition, other things make able mathematics teachers hard to find and keep.

The dominance of tests, exams, targets and league tables leaves little space for creative people to teach in stimulating and effective ways.

Teachers feel compelled to give pupils superficial test-passing skills rather than deep understanding and a real sense of the value of maths. That is bad for pupils, fails to meet the needs of higher education and employers and makes teaching an uncongenial task.

The priority for the medium term should be a period of curricular stability so that problems can be tackled. As a start, removing some of the testing regime shackles would give good maths teachers more freedom to teach well and more time for sustained professional development.

Doug French

Chair of teaching committee The Mathematical Association 259 London Road, Leicester

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