Education Quandary

'Our children's school has only one qualified maths teacher. The head says there is nothing she can do because she cannot get teachers. Is this right?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

Secondary schools are about 3,500 maths teachers short, and even though the Government is offering pay rises and bigger bursaries, most maths graduates still know they are better off in industry. At the same time, experienced teachers are downing tools. Between 1996 and 2003, an estimated 8,900 maths teachers stopped teaching, while only 5,500 were recruited. You can do the sums - at least, you can if you've been taught how to. Things are not good. Meanwhile, the number of A-level maths pupils is plummeting, signalling even bigger problems ahead. The science writer Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem, said recently that we face a "massive crisis", which no one appears to be tackling with proper urgency.

But a good head will always do more than despair. Other heads have hired numerate graduates in associated subjects and trained them in the graduate training programme; used primary-trained teachers to teach their younger pupils; found and nurtured local supply teachers; and hired specialists from abroad.

Your head could also try and promote maths in school by getting form tutors to do mental maths work with pupils, using parents' evenings to push the subject, and offering pupils out-of-hours maths sessions. And she could look for outside support: some maths undergraduates offer Saturday-morning masterclasses for talented students.

Meanwhile, there is also the Tristram Jones-Parry solution. Following the outrage over this Westminster School head being blocked from working in state schools on his retirement, it is obviously going to be quicker and easier to take on experienced, if not strictly qualified, teachers from private schools. Maybe she could explore those possibilities.

Then she needs to cosset her teachers with the best possible professional development, and make sure that they are teaching pupils who behave well in class. So staffing and discipline policies come into the mix, too. And a well-paid, creative maths chief would seem worth his or her weight in gold under the circumstances.

Readers' Advice

I am sure that the head is doing all she can. There is a shortage of teachers in general, and particularly in maths and science. If the results do not meet certain standards then the school will eventually get some sort of government intervention - although this is usually only advice about what needs to be done, and perhaps a little money. I worked in secondary schools for many years before finally leaving and sympathise with this head. People do not want to teach any more because they are either abused by pupils on a daily basis, or spend their days doing all the administration the Government says they have to do, instead of actually teaching.
Sarah Heselwood, Lancashire

We have to tackle this problem at source by recognising how central maths is to our lives. Every time we buy something in a shop, or tell the time, we use maths. Things like the internet and computer games would not run without it. And maths is a great subject at university. Employers know that maths graduates are rigorous thinkers who can analyse situations and solve problems, and rush to snap them up. The subject needs an image overhaul.
Laurence Whittaker, London SW1

When my children were young, I used every opportunity to get them to count and do simple sums. Later, I bought them commercial maths workbooks to back up what they were doing at school. And when one of them had a disastrous GCSE teacher, I found money for a tutor. There is always something you can do to help your children's education.
Moira Kelly, London N7

Next week's quandary

I started work this term at a co-educational secondary school in the Thames Valley, and am appalled by the behaviour of the girls I have to teach. They egg each other on to swear, fight, answer back and be as rude as possible, and are much harder to deal with than the boys. They seem to think they are invincible. Is it me, or do other teachers find the same?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 25 October, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser