Dislike of maths adds up to a national problem

18th March 2016 at 00:00
Urgent action is needed to boost take-up of a subject perceived as ‘hard’, say experts

Urgent action is needed to improve the image of maths and increase take-up at Higher level, experts have said, as a poll revealed pupils’ deep-seated dislike of the subject.

The latest figures show a growing gulf between the number of entries for Higher maths – which have increased by just 2 per cent since 2010 – and English, which have risen by 20 per cent.

There are concerns this gap will continue to widen, in part because of last year’s exams debacle, when the Scottish Qualifications Authority was forced to admit that maths Higher was too difficult.

The increase in assessment at National level may also be putting young people off pursuing the subject at Higher, a report published by the government’s maths task force says today.

The group, Making Maths Count, calls for all new teachers to have a maths Higher – to put the subject on an equal footing with English.

The task force – set up to tackle the image problem around the subject and help raise standards – also wants maths to be given more weight during initial teacher education.

The report includes a new survey that reveals the negative feelings that maths can prompt in pupils – from boredom to anxiety and stress. Its authors say that “improving confidence” in the subject is a top priority (see box, right).

A Scottish government survey published this month found that 21 per cent of teachers who had completed initial teacher training in the past five years said that university classes on numeracy teaching were not useful. Only 56 per cent said that they were useful.

Maureen McKenna, chair of Making Maths Count and education director in Glasgow, told TESS: “Why is there this discrepancy between Higher maths and Higher English? That’s a major issue for me. I think it’s to do with the progression routes through the new National qualifications.

“The SQA has told me that it has a positive plan for maths and it is planning to reduce assessment at National 5 but at the moment, pupils are being put off taking the Higher.”

As well as putting pupils off progressing with the subject, assessment was driving National courses but not mathematical learning, she said. Both problems would be lessened by “a significant reduction in the assessment burden”, Ms McKenna concluded.

She said: “We can’t discount the damage last year’s Higher maths paper has done in terms of young people’s perceptions of what the outcome will be if they do Higher maths. That was so hard; teachers’ confidence has been dented and so has pupil confidence.”

More needed to be done to promote a “growth mindset” towards maths, she added

Headteachers have also suggested there is a perception that maths is “hard” but warned against making changes too soon.

Andy Smith, head of Carluke High School in South Lanarkshire, a former maths teacher and president of School Leaders Scotland, pointed out that the number of pupils passing National 5 maths was far lower than for English, which meant far fewer pupils then progressed to Higher.

Maths was one of the few subjects at National 5 with no internally assessed element that counted towards the final exam, he added. Mr Smith said: “The fact that pupils don’t have anything in the bag when they go into the exam might add to the perception that maths is harder than other subjects.”

However, the headteacher stopped short of calling for any changes to the new qualifications, saying: “We need to leave them for a few years, allow them to settle.”

Responding to the report, the SQA said which candidates sat qualifications and at which level was “a decision for schools” but did not elaborate further.

The Making Maths Count group highlights a range of figures illustrating the declining popularity of maths Higher in today’s report. Girls, in particular, seem to be voting with their feet. Between 2014 and 2015 uptake of the English Higher among girls rose by 13 per cent and uptake of the maths Higher dropped by 2.6 per cent (see graphic, opposite).

Performance in maths in Scotland is also going downhill. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, show that Scotland was once among the leading countries for maths. But more recently pupil performance has been in line with the OECD average.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows that fewer learners are now working at the expected level in P4 and P7 in 2013 than in 2011.

Making Maths Count will present a final set of recommendations to the Scottish government later in the year.


‘Stem subjects have the power to change lives’

I really loved maths at school. It was something I was good at and I enjoyed the challenge of solving the problem.

But rather than studying pure maths or physics, I decided to study electrical and electronic engineering because I liked the idea of applying my knowledge and I liked the idea of using it to help people.

One of our engineering lecturers is working with hospitals in Tanzania to find low-tech solutions to provide hot water. Tom Grassie is using old bed frames as pipes for the water supply and setting up a solar-powered electricity system at Shirati Hospital on the banks of Lake Victoria.

Until recently, doctors there were carrying out caesareans and other emergency operations by torchlight. Hundreds of sheets had to be washed by hand over wood fires.

Closer to home, engineers will play a big part in solving the problems we had recently with flooding. Science, technology, engineering and maths make a difference to people’s lives and enhance them. But it’s hard to bring people in to study science subjects; I think that it’s something to do with how these subjects are portrayed.

We need to get better at emphasising to students that these subjects are about problem solving and making a positive contribution to society.

Sandra Cairncross is a member of the Making Maths Count group and assistant principal at Edinburgh Napier University. Prior to her current job, she was dean of the faculty of engineering, computing and creative industries

‘My brain commits suicide’

The Making Maths Count group commissioned a survey to explore public perceptions of maths. By the end of last month, when an initial analysis of responses was carried out, 625 under-16s had taken part.

Participants were asked the question “What does maths mean to you?”

While many of the pupil responses included positive words and phrases about maths – such as “easy”, “fun” and “exciting” – many others were negative, the report says.

Such responses ranged from “My brain cells commit suicide one by one” to maths being “boring”, “hard” and “hell”. Other pupils said the subject made them feel “stressed”, “scared” or “anxious”.

When asked what would make them more enthusiastic about maths, the pupils said teachers who “enjoyed maths” and who were more “fun”, “understanding” and “enthusiastic”.

The pupils stressed the importance of schools making the relevance of learning clear; positive attitudes towards maths as well as working with parents.

Adults were also questioned in the survey. Around 60 per cent said that they would like to improve their maths skills. The most common reason for wanting to improve was “to be able to better help my child with their learning”.

The Making Maths Count surveys will remain open until Wednesday.

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