Mathematics and physics are particularly hard hit, with fewer graduates applying to teach the subject than at any time for more than a decade, according to figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry. The number of graduates who had accepted places by mid-August to train to teach physics was down by 39 per cent on the same time last year and the number in mathematics was down by nearly a third.
Only 680 recruits had signed up to teach maths, 300 down on last year, and representing only 40 per cent of this year's government target. The outlook for maths - a core subject in the national curriculum, and a subject about which it is essential to have at least a working knowledge throughout life - is alarming, to say the least. Many schools are already experiencing considerable difficulty in filling maths vacancies, and an increasing number of maths teachers in secondary schools teach the subject without having a background in it themselves.
But where does the root of the problem with maths really lie? Does it originate with poor teaching in schools? Is maths failing to attract enough students at undergraduate level, or is it, more simply, that our maths graduates do not want to become teachers?
Peter Dunn, a spokesman at Warwick University, one of the top maths institutions in the country, believes the problem lies not with the teaching of maths, but with the increasingly bright array of career prospects for maths graduates: what is needed is to make teaching a more attractive profession. Mathematics in the past, he says, was regarded by employers as something of an ivory tower subject, a bit too "pure" for the real world but in recent years, an increasing number of bright maths graduates have been snatched up to work in the expanding financial sector for big salaries.
Thirty years ago, says Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University, about 10 per cent of maths graduates went into teaching; in recent years, that figure has fallen to five per cent, and now to as little as two per cent. Financial, accountancy and actuarial work is now the biggest sector employing maths graduates, and many more choose computing or management careers.
"There is a huge demand now for maths graduates, because they can learn to do almost anything. Employers treat a maths degree as a kind of general intelligence test, and maths graduates are seen as useful people," says Professor Stewart. "This year, 300 more maths graduates than last year have decided not to go into teaching, and I find it hard to blame them. There are a lot of other jobs on offer with better pay and better conditions."
Mathematics has continued to be a popular and competitive subject at universities; Warwick itself turns away many able candidates. But the proportion of maths undergraduates - in relation to the over-all expanding student body - is slowly declining.
In secondary schools, the number of pupils taking A-level maths rose this year by three per cent. At GCSE, the proportion of candidates failing maths was higher this year, but so too was the number gaining top grades in the subject.
But the view from higher education, according to Chris Robson, Professor of Pure Mathematics at Leeds University, has been for some time that maths in schools is not adequately preparing students for future careers in maths, science or engineering. Students are not sufficiently confident in the handling of basic mathematic techniques, such as multiplication tables or simple algebraic calculations. As more non-maths specialists find themselves teaching maths in secondary schools, their own lack of confidence may also be filtering through.
Professor Robson is hopeful, however, that the numeracy hour, now being introduced in primary schools, could help to get maths off to a more positive start, and he welcomes its emphasis on mental calculation.
Others are less sanguine. The head of education at a leading British university (who declined to be named) took the view that only another recession could provide teacher recruitment with the boost it so badly needs. Even then, he did not believe number's would rise to the levels of the early 1980s recession, because of the worsening public image of schools in general.
Warwick University is hoping that mature people can be enticed into maths teaching, after pursuing other careers. This year the university will give its support to three such candidates as they start out in the classroom. Another idea is to introduce a degree course in maths and maths education. which might stimulate some students to go on to a PGCE.
Directing more money to new teachers in subjects such as maths and physics - in the manner of industry's "golden hellos" to new graduates - could help to bring in recruits, suggests Professor Robson. But Professor Stewart is adamant that more money alone will not solve the teaching profession's problems, which are largely structural.
What is needed, he says, is wholesale reform of educational bureaucracy, which is making it hard for teachers to get on with the job of teaching, as well as putting off potential newcomers, and the introduction of a proper pay and career structure.
The setting up of a national maths standing committee, Professor Robson recommends, would also help to ensure that changes in maths education are made in a more coherent fashion and at a steadier pace.
"Teacher supply would be the biggest problem for a committee like this, and it's one that's worth worrying about," he says.Reuse content