Classroom careers that add up

Many maths graduates who would have once gone into financial services are turning to teaching, says Amy McLellan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even mathematics, a subject that has long struggled to attract new recruits, has seen a 4 per cent increase in enquiries from eligible candidates since the launch of the new campaign in September 2004. But reversing a historic shortage of maths teachers will take more than a series of well-pitched advertisements.

"This is a chronic problem that's been with us for over 50 years," says Peter Cooper of the London Mathematical Society. "We've never been pumping out maths teachers in sufficient numbers or quality."

The extent of the shortage is difficult to pin down. As one mathematician points out, in a culture of league tables, no head teacher is going to put their hand up and admit that they're short of maths teachers. Professor Adrian Smith's report for the DfES, published in February 2004, pointed to a shortfall of 3,400 secondary maths teachers - and more than one in three of those teaching the subject had no post-A-level maths qualifications.

Clive Goodall of the Royal Statistical Society says even the most skilled teacher will struggle to convey the nuances, connections and usefulness of the subject unless they have a maths background. "It means children aren't stimulated by the subject and a vicious circle of decline sets in," he says.

There are many reasons for the shortage but market forces rank highly. Maths graduates are highly prized and can command a 10 per cent salary premium. The financial services industry swallows up 40 per cent of all maths graduates, with IT taking another large bite of the population. That doesn't leave many in the pot to become the next generation of educators.

Yet there are signs that this is changing. The proportion of maths graduates embarking on a teaching career has doubled in a year, according to a recent report from Graduate Prospects, which found that one in six of 2003's maths graduates was heading for the classroom, compared to fewer than one in 12 in 2002.

"Teaching seems to be winning the battle for the hearts and minds of maths graduates," says Charlie Ball, labour market information manager at Graduate Prospects.

Other statistics back this. The Teacher Training Agency (TTA) says 2,350 people began maths teacher training last academic year, with an additional 200 who were expected to begin on flexible programmes. In all, the numbers of new entrants are up by 1,000 on the numbers of five years ago.

Mary Doherty, director of teacher supply and recruitment at the TTA, says increasing numbers are swapping the boardroom for the classroom as they find themselves jaded by the pressures of business life and want to put something back. "Teaching is a challenging job but you can leave school at three o'clock, pick up your own children from school, take them swimming and then maybe sit down in the evening and do a couple of hours of marking," she says. "You can make decisions about how to structure your time out of work and when you are in work you're doing something fulfilling that gives you a real buzz."

And it no longer involves a major financial sacrifice. Starting salaries for teachers compare favourably with many other graduate careers - a newly qualified teacher can expect to start on at least £18,558, rising to £22,059 in inner London - and scarcity means a premium for the would-be maths teacher. Those who sign up to be maths teachers enjoy a tax-free £6,000 training bursary (rising to £7,000 from September) and a taxable £4,000 (£5,000 from September) golden hello.

It doesn't take a maths teacher to work out that this adds up to nice a little welcome package. But financial support alone won't breach the recruitment gap. "The measures are not making a big enough difference quickly enough," says Colin Matthews of the Advisory Committee on Maths Education, highlighting the severity of the shortage, problems with retention, the ageing demographics of the existing teaching population and the lack of financial incentives in the further education sector, home to 50 per cent of post-16 maths education.

But while there is still much to be done, there is a genuine relief in the maths community that at last the problem is being taken seriously. " Credit should be given to Adrian Smith and the Department for Education and Skills for realising that maths needed to be put under the spotlight and for then providing the resources to give it every chance of improvement," says Matthews. And that means improving quality as well as quantity. The ability, enthusiasm and confidence of teachers will be key to reversing this country's alarming antipathy to the subject, which is widely derided as boring, difficult and irrelevant.

Tenders are being considered for a National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching, which will provide ongoing training and support to revitalise the teaching of maths, and there is also talk of professional accreditation, with teachers able to work towards chartered maths teacher status.

"If ever there was a time to become a maths teacher, this is it," says Matthews. "You will be welcomed into the profession with open arms. "

Nick Hamilton: 'Even without the golden hellos and the bursaries, I would have done this'

Nick, an engineering graduate, swapped his life as a fund manager to retrain as a maths teacher.

When I left university, I worked in a boarding school in Australia as a way to pay for my travels. I did some science teaching, coached some sport and had a great time with the kids. But when I came back to the UK it never crossed my mind to be a teacher. All my friends were working in the City and earning huge amounts of money so I thought I'd give it a go. I got a job working as a fund manager but I just couldn't see myself doing it for another 40 years.

I felt I was just pushing money around and not really achieving anything. In the end, I quit and spent a month thinking about what to do. There were lots of adverts about teaching on TV at the time, so I talked to a mate who was a teacher, tried a couple of weeks in my old school and decided to give it a shot.

I'm doing a PGCE and I'm on my second school placement now. I'm just loving it. In a classroom of 25 kids, you'll always have some real characters. They say what they think, which is very refreshing, and sometimes they really make you laugh.

It's good to be back at university too: there are 25 of us doing maths at secondary level so there are people I know in schools in the area who I can call for support.

Even without the golden hellos and the bursaries, I would have done this. But the money does help. Even though I'm back as a student, I haven't found myself in need of money.

With all the bursaries, loans and money from the local authority, it came to about £11,000 over nine months, which is a real salary. I have no regrets at all.

Three uk mathematical societies

'Whatever you want to do, a maths or stats degree will help'

On the surface, it would appear that the three top learned mathematics societies of the UK have very different outlooks. The London Mathematical Society (LMS), founded in 1865, draws its members from mathematics doctorates, mainly employed in academia, and is committed to the promotion and extension of mathematical knowledge. The Institute of Mathematics and its Appliances (IMA), formed almost 100 years later, has a wider membership of qualified and practising mathematicians. Its mission is to promote mathematics in industry, business, the public sector, education and research. The largest and oldest learned mathematics society is the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), founded in 1834. As its name suggests, the RSS is devoted to disseminating the use of statistical methods and applications throughout society.

But scratch the surface and you will find a very different picture. Since 2001, these societies have been working together as the Council for the Mathematical Sciences (CMS) to represent the interests of mathematics to government, research councils and other public bodies. Their common interests and shared beliefs are driving the activities undertaken by the CMS to promote mathematics.

First and foremost, the societies are joining forces to present mathematics and statistics as useful and important, as well as interesting. Many undergraduates who choose to study maths and stats at university do so because they enjoy them or have a particular aptitude for them. Not all train in these subjects to achieve specific career goals; many undergraduates have little idea what they would like to do after finishing their degree. But the good news is that a mathematical sciences degree provides excellent skills and opportunities suitable to a variety of careers.

Regardless of what you want to do, a mathematics or statistics degree will help, says Ivor Goddard, director general of the RSS. Maths is a skill rather than a vocation; you can do it for enjoyment and still end up with a worthwhile qualification of practical value.

Employers are always looking for the range of intellectual and practical skills that a maths or stats degree brings. In our increasingly technological society, it is important that people in all walks of life should be numerate and able to understand how to assess risks and reason with highly complex data. Maths provides the abstract tools that can be used in almost every kind of employment, because it teaches students to think logically, creatively and laterally to solve problems. Such transferable skills as logic, analysis, deduction and calculation are highly sought after by employers in the computing, finance, risk assessment and security industries, among others.

Maths graduates are bright and flexible, with strong analytic, intellectual and problem-solving skills, suited to almost every sector, says David Youdan, executive director of the IMA: "Most maths graduates work in multidisciplinary teams. With the right mixture of maths and communication skills, graduates can go far."

Statistics show that there are currently more mathematical jobs than qualified people to fill them, so the demand for maths and stats graduates is high and unemployment very low. Recent studies have also shown that maths graduates earn up to 10 per cent more than other graduates. Contrary to popular beliefs, many mathematicians follow exciting and unusual career paths.

Career options for those with maths qualifications are far more diverse than many people realise, says Peter Cooper. The question often asked is, what do mathematicians do? The quick response is: what don't they do?

Apart from the traditional careers of business and finance, maths and stats graduates are also employed in information technology, science and industry, sales and marketing, law and media. Many work in the public sector for local or national government or become school, college and university teachers. Maths is also a growing branch of other research areas, and postgraduate mathematicians may find themselves conducting medical research, modelling climate change, designing architectural structures or engineering planes, trains and automobiles.

Mathematicians are everywhere, says Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem. You'll find them in genetics labs trying to understand the geometry of folding DNA strands. You'll find them in computer games studios, working on new algorithms for simulating movement and texture. You'll find them hiding in the Stock Exchange predicting the dollar-yen exchange rate.

The CMS has recently launched a website,, funded by the Department for Education and Skills. Targeted at students from Key Stage three to graduate level, it uses resources from the three societies and wider mathematical community to show how maths and stats affect our everyday lives and lead to interesting and worthwhile careers. It includes a section for undergraduates to help them apply for jobs, plus guides on how to achieve your career choice and links to graduate employers.

Jennie Pollard, Mathematics Promotion and Policy Assistant, The London Mathematical Society