A maths teacher in the running for the million-dollar Global Teacher Prize has urged schools to use real-life examples of successful women to inspire female pupils to study maths, and said that parents and figures in the media should avoid making “self-deprecating” remarks about their own maths skills.
Colin Hegarty, shortlisted for the second annual Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, said that girls needed to be taught "the story of amazing woman mathematicians throughout history and all the great contributions they’ve made.”
He referred to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, the 19th-century French mathematician Marie-Sophie Germain and the chief scientist of Nasa, Dr Ellen Stofan, as role models.
“Telling the story about the subject is the most important thing,” he said.
Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s Global Teacher Prize ceremony, which will be held at the Global Education and Skills Forum conference in Dubai, Mr Hegarty also called for a more positive approach to the study of maths.
“Even if we’ve had a bad experience ourselves, I think it’s important not to tell that story,” he said.
“We’ve got a self-deprecating nature. It’s prevalent. You hear it a lot on TV.” He pointed to a L’Oreal advert last year in which the actress Dame Helen Mirren said: “Age is just a number. And maths was never my thing.”
Mr Hegarty, who was shortlisted for the million-dollar prize after creating thousands of online videos explaining maths to students, also said he hoped his work would help youngsters who could not afford private tutors.
"I would like it to reach as many children as possible, and especially those who need it the most,” he said. “I want to help the children who can't afford personal tutors."
He has set up a new website showcasing his tutorials which he wants to reach as many pupils as possible - especially those who would benefit the most from extra maths help.
The maths specialist starting creating films on the subject around four years ago, after an A-level student had to take time off to see his sick father and was worried about falling behind.
The idea took off, and after creating more than 1,000 videos which have collectively had around six million views, Mr Hegarty took a sabbatical to establish a dedicated maths website. It is currently available in around 70 schools.
"This is an opportunity to help home learning and offer home support," he added.
Children can learn whole maths concepts through the videos, try them out and test themselves on what they have learnt.
"If nothing else, this is a way to reach pupils more effectively," he said. "It's something that can really help them to learn."
One in four pupils have had a private tutor to help with exams or school work, according to a poll published by the Sutton Trust last year, up from 18 per cent in 2005.
The charity has warned that poorer children whose families cannot afford private help can be put at a disadvantage.
Mr Hegarty, a teacher at Preston Manor School in Wembley, north-west London, said that since he was shortlisted for the accolade, interest in his website has grown, with thousands of school and parents asking for information.
He said that he is hoping to find a technology company will now work with him to extend the site's reach.
"I hope this website will make a drastic difference to maths education, and that I can find a backer," he said.
The University of Oxford graduate, who became a teacher six years ago after previously working as an accountant for Deloitte, said he is excited about being shortlisted for the prize, which recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to teaching.
"I'm particularly excited about meeting the other people shortlisted," he said. "One of my favourite things is watching other teachers teach."
The other nine finalists are drawn from around the world, including Pakistan, Kenya, Palestine, the USA, Japan, Finland, Australia and India.
The winner will receive one million US dollars (around £630,000) and be asked to serve as a global ambassador for the Varkey Foundation, attending events and speaking about their work.
But they will also be required to remain working as a classroom teacher for at least five years as a condition of winning the award.