‘I don’t quite get it. It will cause a lot of anxiety and waste a lot of money and time’

8th December 2017 at 00:00
Times-table testing for nine-year-olds has got Dame Celia Hoyles worried about the lack of evidence behind a policy that could cause pupils unnecessary stress. Despite this, the oft-cited problems with UK maths teaching in general have been ‘over-egged’, the distinguished professor tells Helen Ward

Dame Celia Hoyles has been described as the “rock star” of maths education. Glamorous, influential and inspiring, she has bagged dozens of honours, while forging a career in research and guiding national policy, as the government’s former chief maths adviser.

With maths education rising ever higher up the political agenda, Hoyles, 71, is in demand for her insights on how best to get children to do their sums.

And she doesn’t think much of the UK government’s proposed times-table tests for nine-year-olds.

“I’m really worried about them,” she says. “I have yet to see a primary school that doesn’t teach times tables. Everybody knows it’s important. You really need to know your basic facts – that is not the contention – but why do you have to have this timed test? I don’t quite get it. It will cause a lot of anxiety and waste a lot of money and time.

“Where is the evidence that this will make a difference? If there is evidence, I’m very happy to read it.”

‘We could set the world on fire’

Throughout a long and varied career, Hoyles has retained an academic’s thirst for questioning. Although she was once in the thick of policymaking, as a government adviser and then as the first director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), she has always retained her post as a professor at the UCL Institute of Education.

Hoyles has always shined at maths. She went to Loughton County High School for Girls in Essex – a grammar that later became part of Roding Valley High – where she remembers her pure-maths teacher being very “careful and caring”, and her applied-maths teacher being “very dashing”.

She won a place at the University of Manchester and graduated with a first-class degree in maths, before returning south, moving to Plaistow, East London. Over the next five years, Hoyles taught maths at London schools, but continued her studies, going on to complete a PGCE and MEd.

Her first lecturing job was at the former Polytechnic of North London, and in 1984 she was made professor of maths education at the UCL Institute of Education (IoE).


Nearly 30 years on, she is now thinking of going part-time in January when her husband and IoE colleague Richard Noss, also a maths education professor, retires. But she eschews the idea of giving up work entirely; after all, there is always so much going on in maths.

In the past few years, the East Asian style of “mastery” teaching has been sweeping across England. There has been a new curriculum, new Sats, a new GCSE and a new A level. And that’s not all. We meet just after chancellor Philip Hammond announced a Budget that was big on maths teaching. The government has promised to spend millions on getting the nation’s children skilled up in the subject. Hoyles hopes this will help to close the large variations in maths achievement – most obviously between disadvantaged and advantaged pupils, but also between boys and girls, and between Asian, white and black students.

Hammond’s announcement of an £8.5 million pot for piloting new methods of teaching children who failed to get a grade 4 (formerly C) at GCSE maths – 156,352 pupils in 2017 – is “brilliant”, she says. “If they try to do something different using digital technologies, we could set the world on fire,” she says.

The use of computers in maths education has been a major strand in her research. She believes that although these pupils might not see the fascination of maths, there are ways to persuade them to invest the effort to improve in the subject.

Between 1987 and 1990, Hoyles was involved in one of the more unusual ways of doing this – as the “maths prof” on TV show Fun and Games. “One thing that has underlined all my working life, perhaps my life, is that I like doing new things,” she says.

“It was great. They had a celebrity who set the puzzles and they wanted a maths professor to say, ‘If you think of this mathematically, everything will be clear’ – and that was my job.”

Her work ever since has been about engaging pupils – she is currently working on a project to use the Scratch starter programming language developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach maths.

“Digital technology can make maths come alive… One kid said, ‘It’s like magic in front of my eyes.’”

‘It’s just too much’

The argument that education is about more than just test results has been a long-held belief of Hoyles’. In a piece she wrote with Richard Noss and Harvey Goldstein in 1992, the authors argued against the introduction of Sats, branding them “crude standardised tests” and calling for sampling instead.

“I suppose, in a funny way, maths has benefited [from Sats],” she reflects. “Because it gets more money. But it [the Sats system] has its downsides in that it causes so much stress. I’ve noticed in many primaries just how long they spend in Year 6 training for the key stage 2 tests. I understand why, but it’s too much.”

Arguing from the outside is one thing, but when she had the chance to join the former Department for Education and Skills as chief mathematics adviser, she gained an insider’s insight into policymaking.

One of her jobs was to push through the recommendations from the 2004 Making Mathematics Count report by Adrian Smith – one of which was to set up the NCETM, which she went on to lead.

But during this entire time, she kept her job at the IoE, working part-time in both posts. (Working with PhD students while teaching and doing research “keeps you quite sane”, she says.)

Her work has brought great recognition: she was made an OBE in 2004; was the first recipient of the Royal Society Kavli Education Medal in 2010; and was made a Dame in 2014.

“I have done a lot of very different jobs,” she says. “You meet people from all over the world and it opens your eyes to how maths might be taught in different ways.”

Hoyles describes herself as “energetic”. She is lucky to be fit and still playing tennis, she says. But does she never become dispirited by the mantra that the UK is bad at maths? After all, that is why all these millions of pounds are being pledged. Of course, Hoyles is happy about money going into maths education. But after many years, visiting many schools in many countries, she is concerned at the rhetoric about our “failing” pupils and teachers.

“I know we could do better,” she says. “But we’re not so bad. I think it is over-egged, how bad we are. I think there are some fantastic schools and fantastic maths teachers, and when you get a good community of maths teachers who are really working together here. I don’t think you will get anywhere better.”


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