Turning a minus into a plus

The UK has a chronic shortage of qualified maths teachers. Caitlin Davies looks at possible solutions to a painful brainteaser
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The Independent Online

Here's a simple sum: unqualified maths teachers + uninterested students = a drop in the number of people taking A-level maths. Fewer A-level students = fewer maths undergraduates = fewer qualified teachers. It's a vicious mathematical circle, but how did the current problems start?

The usual scapegoat is the disastrous AS-level results in 2001. With almost 30 per cent failing the new AS exam, the idea of sixth-form maths seemed downright scary. By the following year A-level entry had fallen sharply and the press announced a national crisis.

But that's not the only problem. "You wouldn't believe how many successful people actually brag that they've never been good at maths," says a retired head of maths in Northamptonshire, "but they've made millions and they know how to count it, so that's rubbish."

Charlie Stripp, chair of the teaching committee of The Mathematical Association, says such attitudes, along with the AS failure rate (now around 20 per cent), have turned students off maths. In 1989, 13 per cent of A-level students chose maths, now it's nearer 7 per cent.

Maths definitely has an image problem. Peter Cooper, executive secretary at the London Mathematical Society, says it's common for people to say they don't really use maths, when they are clearly using mathematical concepts. He cites spatial awareness, data handling and modelling, and the all-important computer spreadsheets which are hard to create and use without knowledge of algebra. But the most important concept is the ability to tackle broader skills such as problem solving.

Maths is a strange subject: easy for some, hell for others. And it's particularly hard to grasp without a proper grounding in the subject. Yet, right from primary level, unqualified staff are teaching a subject they don't always understand.

What can be done? In secondary schools it could be a case of changing the national maths diet, altering the ingredients of the course to suit different appetites. The idea of different classes for different students is expected to form a major part of the Government inquiry into post-14 maths, which is due out this month. "You need to create a variety of pathways which people can master at their own rates," the head of the inquiry, Professor Adrian Smith, told The Independent recently.

The idea has split mathematicians, but Peter Cooper is behind the idea of alternative routes. Those who want a career in maths need a different course to those who want to become a manager in an engineering company or use their maths on the shop floor. To Cooper it's an obvious solution, "but there's a very British reaction that when you have more than one route the assumption is that one is higher."

Charlie Stripp, on the other hand, would prefer all students to climb the same ladder. His personal view is that branding a 14- year-old into a certain maths route makes it harder to change course later on.

Meanwhile, although there's been a fall in the number of A-level maths students, A-level maths remains a popular subject, more so than physics, chemistry or biology. And there's been an increase in those getting an A, currently at about 40 per cent of students.

"AS weeds the weaker students out," says Stripp. "Only the lean, mean ones are left." And the mean ones should also be taking further maths at A-level, says Stripp, because it's here that they'll learn some really inspirational maths. He looks forward to next year's curriculum changes which will bridge the present gap between maths GCSE and maths AS, especially in algebra. Another change for 2004 will be the ability to study AS further maths alongside AS.

But students still don't see maths as a training in how to think around and solve problems, which can be put to good use in careers in economics, government and business. "We need to get the message out that maths is a very solid and a very flexible qualification," says Peter Cooper. "I did a maths degree and I've worked in industry, I've done teaching and now I'm in management."

For Chris Budd, professor of applied maths at Bath University, it's a question of enriching the experience of learning maths all the way from Key Stage 1. Budd wants to see maths made more relevant, personal and exciting. So how does he do this? "Well," he takes a deep breath, "I ask students if they use a mobile phone. That couldn't work without maths. Do they use a microwave? That needs maths to design it. Do they use computer games? The internet? None of them would work without maths."

The most immediate problem for maths is that with a fall in the number of maths graduates, there just aren't enough qualified teachers. Teacher supply is perhaps the most serious issue there is. Applications for maths degrees looked healthy enough in the Nineties, with numbers showing a mild but steady increase. Then came a sudden drop in applicants from 2001-2002.

"There is a grave shortage of qualified maths teachers," admits Chris Budd. "If all our undergraduates went into teaching, it would almost fill the vacancies. That's how bad it is." However he insists maths is not in crisis, in fact things are slightly improving. At Bath the number of maths applicants has actually increased this year, far outnumbering the 200 available places a year.

But how to persuade maths graduates that what they really want to do is become teachers? Some maths organisations want graduates to be given financial incentives and encouraged to attend new training courses. Unqualified GCSE maths teachers should also be given more training - and that's training in inspiration, not in the latest government initiatives for maths.

At Leeds University applications for maths degrees have increased slightly in the last few years, according to director of undergraduate studies Dr Alan Slomson. But although the university has a strong department and is located in a popular city, it can still be hard to recruit. Partly this is because students see maths degrees as difficult, but also because they don't see maths as leading to a specific career.

A survey at Leeds last year showed that maths students who had teacher parents were particularly set against following a teaching career. They worried about discipline in schools and the "general hassle of being a teacher" with all the new tests, league tables and Ofsted inspections.

Last year's Open University conference on the shortage of maths teachers also noted that teaching is rarely a first choice among maths graduates, who cite low pay and issues of pupil behaviour.

Slomson says there is a perception among parents that a maths degree means becoming a teacher and while that might have been true 30 years ago, it isn't now. Most Leeds maths graduates go into the financial sector and accounting firms trawl hard for maths graduates.

"I was talking to a student the other day who wanted to switch to a maths degree," says Slomson. "I asked him why he hadn't done maths in the first place. He said it was because he'd been told he'd have to become a teacher. That was seen as an absolutely dire end."