Where did all the maths teachers go?

Head teachers are filling vacancies in maths, languages and science with unqualified teachers. Diana Hinds investigates an intractable problem
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The Independent Online

Buried within escalating teacher shortages – more than 5,000 vacancies in the past year, according to last week's government figures – lurks the problem of a growing number of subjects in secondary schools with no specialists to teach them. The most seriously affected subjects, acknowledged in the Chief Inspector of Schools' annual report, are mathematics, science and foreign languages, as well as design and technology, and religious education.

Increasingly, schools struggling to fill vacancies are having to use staff to teach subjects in which they are not adequately qualified. While such teachers may plug a hole in the short term, the implications are severe. As the Chief Inspector puts it: "Where a subject is taught by a high proportion of teachers with limited qualifications in the subject, this lack of subject knowledge manifests itself in lower expectations, weaker teaching and less effective learning in the subject."

Accurate figures for those teaching subjects in which they are not qualified are hard to come by. The Office for Standards in Education says that only 77 per cent of those teaching some mathematics in secondary schools have a post-A-level qualification in the subject. With probably fewer than 20,000 maths specialists in English and Welsh secondary schools, compared with more than 40,000 such teachers 20 years ago, Estelle Morris has said the Government would need to recruit 40 per cent of all maths graduates to hit its targets.

Professor Margaret Brown, at King's College, London University, says there are now schools in inner London where no member of staff is capable of teaching A-level maths. In recent research on students' experiences of undergraduate mathematics, Professor Brown found that two-thirds of students interviewed would not consider a career in teaching. Students with parents who were teachers were particularly negative about the profession, citing stress, long hours, administrative load and/or abuse, as reasons to avoid teaching.

"There is a real problem in promoting maths teaching as an attractive job," says Professor Brown. "It used to be seen as an exciting subject, with lots of investigations and fun in the classroom. But it is quite hard to teach children maths and there is now such pressure from the Government to improve exam results that many people are put off."

In the past, school maths departments have made up for a lack of maths specialists by employing engineering or science graduates to teach maths. But these subjects are also now experiencing shortages, with physics particularly hard hit.

In a recent survey by Leeds University, fewer than 10 per cent of maths and science undergraduates mentioned teaching as a career option, giving pupil behaviour and pay as determining factors. For these graduates, the world is more or less their oyster when it comes to seeking employment: they can expect a wide range of career openings, many of them better paid and less stressful than teaching.

In modern foreign languages, according to the Chief Inspector, "the match of teachers to curriculum demands is unsatisfactory in about one school in seven." But schools are addressing shortages in this area by looking overseas to recruit native speakers. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research now runs a Graduate Teacher Programme in conjunction with the Teacher Training Agency, which brings about 50 native speakers annually from European countries (mainly France) to UK schools.

"Native speakers bring something special to language teaching, in terms of giving pupils access to their culture,'' says Lid King, the director of CILT.

Schools facing shortages are increasingly dependent on supply agencies to keep up numbers. Mark Staniland, the managing director of Hays Education, a recruitment agency, argues that "there are a good number of people out there with shortage subject skills to offer who can be made better use of." Some supply teachers, he maintains, can be persuaded back into permanent jobs, provided they are not tempted by better offers, for instance in the service industry.

"There needs to be an attitude among teachers, more like in commerce, where you consider several teaching jobs and choose the one you like most, rather than feeling bound to accept the first job offered," he says.

Looking overseas for recruits is an increasingly common strategy for local authorities and supply agencies, as well as for some head teachers, who are taking off for South Africa or Australia in search of staff. The downside is that overseas teachers often only want to work in this country for a few years before returning home.

Hammersmith and Fulham education authority is wooing teachers by helping them buy their own homes in the borough. Two teachers are due to move in this term as part of the Government's Starter Home Initiative, with another six teachers already signed up. Derby City Council is trying to boost recruitment of "high quality teachers" across the UK by plugging the virtues of its city (good nightlife, apparently), its proximity to beautiful countryside, as well as its relatively cheap housing. A recent recruitment event in Derby attracted 200 potential recruits, and the education services are now waiting to see how many of these will translate into applicants for autumn vacancies.

None of these initiatives have any chance of making a lasting impact if serious efforts are not also made to enhance the image of the teaching profession in general, and of shortage subjects in particular. Money, of course, comes into this, and there are some signs that the Government's entry inducements and "golden hellos" are beginning have an effect.

David Moore, the chief executive of the Association for Science Education, argues that university science departments need to assume more of the responsibility for sustaining their subject in schools, by encouraging undergraduates' interest in teaching.

Barbara Ball, the professional officer for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, suggests that, because there's never likely to be an abundance of maths specialists, maths teachers should be given more time to work with their less-qualified colleagues.

"There have to be other perks for maths teachers," says Professor Brown at King's College, "like having time off for free extra training. There also needs to be some effort to make the whole thing more exciting, and less pressure from the Government for ever-improved results."