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Maths education in the UK: exploring the shortage of Maths Teachers

The provision of sufficient numbers of effective teachers of maths in schools and colleges has long been a problem in England; Sir Adrian Smith identified the shortfall in 2004 in his report, ‘Making Mathematics Count’, where he described the shortage of specialist maths teachers as the most serious obstacle to ensuring the future supply of sufficient young people with appropriate maths skills. Even now, 16 years later, we have not solved this problem and indeed most statistics point to the situation becoming even more problematic. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the issues?

In England teachers do have specialisms but QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) is non-subject specific and senior leaders are free to assign any teaching work within the school to any teacher. With the ever-increasing shortage of specialist maths teachers, growing numbers of non-specialist teachers are being directed to teach maths in both schools and colleges, referred to as ‘out-of-field’ teaching.

Many countries around the world are also experiencing similar problems; for example, Ireland is also employing increasing numbers of teachers out-of-field (estimated at about 20%) and has seen a collapse in the numbers recruited to teacher training courses. So we are not alone - but there are some countries that seem to have bucked this trend, Finland and Japan being two examples.

Several elements have now combined to exacerbate our shortage of specialist maths teachers in secondary schools and colleges in England; these include:

  • the changing economy means that maths graduates now have more options and teaching may appear to be a less attractive option
  • the increase in the numbers of pupils in UK secondary schools and colleges
  • the new, more rigorous mathematical demands of Functional Skills, GCSE and A Level syllabuses require teachers to have higher mathematical expertise
  • the requirement to re-sit GCSE maths post-16 if not passed at the end of Year 11 (age 16) has put tremendous pressure on teacher numbers, particularly in colleges
  • the recent introduction of post-16 ‘Core Maths’ courses, designed for students who pass GCSE maths but do not continue on to AS or A Level maths courses, require more maths teachers
  • the as-yet-unknown implications of COVID-19 and Brexit on teacher numbers.

The Nuffield report in 2018 shows even more worrying trends in that the most inexperienced or the ‘out-of-field’ teachers are most frequently allocated to Key Stage 3 classes (age 11-14), and that schools in disadvantaged locations have the most difficulty in recruiting and retaining well-qualified teachers of maths.

Surely now is the time to think of more radical approaches to solve this continuing problem?

What are the possible solutions?

The solutions will depend on the impact of COVID-19, which are still largely unknown, but below are some thoughts to explore and provoke conversations.

  • Look at ways of reducing the number of normal teaching sessions and utilising online reinforcement and extension. This is certainly the most viable option in the current climate and with education moving online during the pandemic, this suddenly feels a lot more feasible.
  • Focus on retraining teaching assistants in schools and colleges who have mathematical experience, to become full teachers.
  • Consider expert teachers taking larger classes, with other teachers and teaching assistants working alongside them to support delivery. This definitely depends on the impact of COVID-19, but worth considering should it be feasible in the future.
  • Explore recruiting more teachers from overseas. However, there’s a question over if is this a morally justifiable route when most will come from countries with struggling economies, and the UK economy will inevitably experience changes following the pandemic.

Let’s take a closer look at countries that do not fit the international trend of difficulties with recruitment and retention of effective maths teachers; for example Finland. The teaching profession here is held in high regard and there is real competition to become a teacher but conversely there’s no competition between schools as learners just attend their local school, there’s no inspection service and there’s no national tests until age 18.

Head teachers and teachers are trusted to provide their learners with an effective and well-rounded education and crucially, the country is a very high performer in international tests, including maths.

The Finland model may seem a step too far for both politicians and parents but I think it is unlikely we can solve our crisis in the supply of effective and capable teachers of maths unless a complete rethink of our educational system is contemplated.

What could this mean for the future?

Although rigorous data is difficult to come by, it appears that the average length of service of a trained secondary maths teacher is between 5 and 6 years. This should set alarm bells ringing and somehow, we need to turn the profession round so that, as in Finland, teachers are held in high regard.

We need to consider the possibility of just one national exam board and we need to ensure the many trained teachers we have are actually teaching, not simply fulfilling a variety of supportive and advisory roles.

Above all, we need to ensure that future generations of young people are given every opportunity to become confident and capable within the subject of maths, with transferable skills to support their own success as well as enabling them to successfully contribute to the economic wellbeing of the country.

In my last blog, I’ll explore a change in direction for maths in the UK, focusing on Core Maths as a realistic solution.

Author: David Burghes, Professor at Plymouth University and CIMT Director