1+1 = fun

Maths is a subject we all use every day of our lives - and teaching it gives you a real buzz, says Steve McCormack

When I first wore a satchel, I learnt about something called a "number". Then came arithmetic, and, at big school, I saw mathematics on the timetable. By the time I trained to be a teacher, the concept of numeracy had put down deep roots. Now the Tomlinson report talks of something called "functional mathematics", while the recently installed Chief Adviser for Mathematics, Professor Celia Hoyles, a fan of computer-based learning, favours the term "techno maths".

While this linguistic alchemy has been going on, teachers have been beavering away with lessons on multiplication, percentages, geometry, and algebra. Fortunately, although our subject has changed its name countless times, there are still 180 degrees inside a triangle, 15 per cent of 200 is 30, and most children favour the X-Men or X Files over solving equations.

As curriculum choice has widened, with cooler, funkier and "easier" subjects on offer, more and more pupils at secondary school have had trouble seeing the relevance of much of the traditional maths diet. But, as Neil Everton, who has been teaching for more than two decades, explains, the role of the maths teacher remains vital.

"There is hardly a profession or trade that doesn't use at least one aspect of maths," he says. "We measure, calculate, mix, time, sort, assess and predict using our mathematical skills."

Sharon Ludgate, a teacher at a Surrey comprehensive, which recently became a specialist maths and computing college, agrees. "It includes mortgages, tax, how much wallpaper [you need] to decorate a room, or how to divide a restaurant bill. All young adults should be competent enough to know they are not being ripped off."

If anything, the future promises more maths teaching, not less. A key Tomlinson proposal is that all pupils continue to study maths to age 18. What exactly their lessons consist of will vary enormously, according to their aptitudes, strengths and choices.

There is a lot of work to be done to devise relevant maths courses for the 15- or 16-year-old heading towards an apprenticeship, or the 17-year-old who wants to do languages at university, not forgetting, of course, those who love, and excel at, maths for its own sake.

This underlines the priority of addressing the persistent and substantial shortage of qualified maths teachers in secondary schools. The Teacher Training Agency and the Government are nibbling away at this, with small increases in training bursaries and the so-called golden hellos, available more than two years after starting training. Recruitment to maths-teacher training courses continues to rise, but not yet at the pace required to address shortages. In addition, too many leave the profession after a couple of years or so. It is one of Professor Hoyles' main concerns, as she prepares to start her job next month. "We need to raise the status of maths teaching," she says. As a first step, she wants to see maths teachers routinely given paid time off to attend courses to update their knowledge and develop new ways of teaching.

Even now, though, maths teaching has a number of great attractions. First, job security: if you have a maths degree and teaching qualification, you can find yourself much sought after, and promotion opportunities abound.

It can also be an immensely enjoyable subject to teach. One of its beauties is the satisfaction of getting the right answer. I remember experiencing the thrill at seeing countless mini eureka moments in my classroom after I'd demonstrated a straightforward way of calculating quite complicated percentages without a calculator.

I was inspired by my first head of department, Martin Glazier, who, after 20 years in the job, still gets a buzz from seeing the light dawning on students' faces - "that sudden click that means a previously unintelligible concept has become clear". Every teacher knows that buzz. Maths teachers would argue they get it more often than most!

education@independent.co.uk

Comments