Numeracy drive faces uphill push as maths entries crash

19th August 2016 at 01:00
A mountain to climb?: Maths faces falling student numbers, in part because it is seen as a subject that causes anxiety
Answers are being sought on how to reverse the trend as numbers taking Higher maths continue to freefall

The number of entries for Higher maths fell this year by more than 2,000. In contrast, the entries for the equivalent qualification in English grew by 1,002. Both literacy and numeracy lie at the heart of Scotland’s new curriculum, so why are pupils continuing to vote with their feet and eschewing maths?

Why have entries for Higher maths dropped?

Last year’s poor Higher exam, which examination body the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was forced to admit was too difficult, is the most obvious explanation, according to Glasgow City Council director of education Maureen McKenna.

The exam dented pupil and teacher confidence alike, added Ms McKenna, who is chair of the Making Maths Count group, which was set up by the Scottish government to encourage greater enthusiasm for the subject.

So that's the explanation for the dip – last year's tough exam?

That’s not the full story. Making Maths Count’s interim report has made it clear that the subject’s problems go further back. In 2010, the difference in entries for Higher English and Higher maths was 8,816, while in 2015 it was 14,280. This year’s results show the gap has widened to 17,488.

There has also been concern this year about the performance of pupils sitting the National 5 lifeskills mathematics course. The qualification was designed to promote the practical side of the subject, but just 35 per cent of pupils passed the exam.

What's the problem?

When it came to the lifeskills maths course, the SQA’s explanation was that some students had fallen into the trap of thinking it was an easy option, despite the level of difficulty being the same.

However, the wider issue, according to Ms McKenna, is that maths is suffering from an image problem and it needs to improve its reputation as an enjoyable subject. The evidence for this is “overwhelming”, she said.

What do we know about people's perceptions of the subject?

The issue of “maths anxiety” – a feeling of fear that interferes with maths performance – warrants close attention in Scotland, said the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its report Improving Schools in Scotland: an OECD perspective, published last year.

Some 30 per cent of Scottish learners reported feeling very tense when doing maths work and more than 50 per cent worried that the subject would be difficult, results from global education survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment, show.

The findings of a survey by Making Maths Count, published in March, also revealed the negative feelings that maths can prompt in pupils – from boredom to anxiety and stress.

What can be done to change the situation?

Ms McKenna would like to see Scottish schools develop “a growth-mindset approach to maths”. This would draw on the work of Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck and encourage people to believe that their abilities are not fixed. It would stress that students could improve their skills through effort and dedication.

Some 30 per cent of Scottish learners reported feeling very tense when doing maths work

Lio Moscardini, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has been trying to improve the way in which the maths is taught in primary for nearly 10 years. He believes that maths needs to be made more meaningful, relevant and useful to pupils. The problems with the subject start at primary level, when children are taught that maths is “just procedures to be learned” and not “an ongoing process of enquiry”, he said.

Is he alone in his views?

No. Similar arguments have been put forward recently by High School of Glasgow maths teacher Stuart Welsh. He said that children had an intuitive feel for maths: stone-age hunter-gatherers needed to have the skills to evaluate that while one wild boar represented a meal, 10 could mean a stampede. But he added that strict teaching techniques used at school, such as an over-reliance on times tables, obscured what children already intuitively knew. Many did not respond well to such methods and switched off in class, sometimes in the early stages of primary, he claimed.

Making Maths Count has also made it clear that it believes the teaching of maths in primary warrants some immediate attention. One of the group’s recommendations was that all primary teachers should have a Higher in maths – currently, they need the equivalent of a National 5 in the subject.

“We need our primary teachers to be confident and skilled in the teaching of maths,” its report says.

So we are all agreed: pupils need to be persuaded of the importance of maths?

Not quite. University of Cambridge professor emeritus John MacBeath has said he does not see why, after mastering basic numeracy and multiplication, children must take maths until age 16. This controversial position led to him being “declared a total heretic to be burned at the stake”, he told TESS earlier this year (“‘Heart of darkness’ wants a light touch from government”, 5 February).

But the continually growing gulf between the uptake of Higher English and maths shows that ever-increasing numbers of Scottish teenagers share his view.


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