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Maths education in the UK: key reflections

Maths has become a key topic for the economic wellbeing of the country in this increasingly digital age and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this 3 part blog series, I will dig into maths within the UK curriculum, issues faced within the subject and how Core Maths provides a realistic, learner focused solution.

Most countries are investing in maths teaching and learning for their learners at school or college, and as a result of the pandemic, schools across the UK have been advised to focus on maths to ensure learners have the skills to progress, following unexpected disruptions to learning. In England, there are two key issues that need to be considered:

  • Do we have sufficient numbers of well-qualified maths teachers to deliver the curriculum in a motivating and enhancing way?
  • Are we teaching a suitable curriculum to meet the needs of young people in a technology driven society?

Before trying to answer these key questions, we need to consider recent developments with the curriculum and the provision of maths and statistics in schools and colleges.

Primary sector: higher mathematical level and multi-stage problems introduced and assessed in key stage 2 tests have resulted in many experienced teachers struggling with the mathematical expertise needed for competent and confident teaching.

Secondary sector: at GCSE, more challenging topics and multi-stage problem-solving questions have been introduced, leading to lower pass marks, which is demotivating for many learners. There have been similar reforms to A Levels and with the return to end of year exams rather than modular assessment, these changes have all contributed to a negative effect with increasing drop-out rates and decreasing entry numbers for the subject. However, the impact of COVID-19 on the future of exams in the next few years is still unknown – there may be more changes to come.

FE Colleges: the decision taken some years ago to make it compulsory for students who have not passed GCSE maths to re-sit the qualification is one of controversy. NCFE is campaigning to give English and maths alternative qualifications, such as Functional Skills, parity of esteem with GCSEs with their Fully Functional campaign.

University sector: most disciplines have seen an increase in the use of maths and statistics (what we now call data science, MS&DS), but many students are now less qualified, competent or confident in these areas. They often struggle and, despite efforts to support them, there is insufficient tutor time or dedicated online resources to provide the help needed. The aim has been for England to compare favourably with other countries but efforts to fare well in these comparisons has led to this current assessment mismatch. Making our exams more challenging can lead to learners and tutors working harder to achieve high standards but if this results in learners becoming demotivated, even when they’ve passed, this will not pay dividends in the long term. Also, with recent disruptions to learning, there’s inevitably going to be changes to attainment rates in key subject areas, as learners across the country have had various levels of engagement in recent months, which may impact outcomes.

In the context above, I return to the first of my key issues, essentially concerning both the recruitment and retention of suitably qualified teachers for maths.

Do we have sufficient numbers of well-qualified maths teachers to deliver the curriculum in a motivating and enhancing way?

We know that recruitment is not keeping pace with retention and that from year to year, the crisis deepens with more and more teaching having to be done by teachers and tutors who don’t have the same level of knowledge as someone who has qualified specifically as a maths teacher. The current data suggests that the average length of service of a secondary maths teacher is around 5 or 6 years, whilst research has indicated that it takes around 5 years to become an expert subject teacher.

It’s also worth mentioning that with secondary schools adding in more lessons for the demands of GCSE maths and the increase nationally in the cohort size, this really is a problem that needs to be addressed, preferably with long term solutions rather than short term solutions that simply ‘plug the gaps’.

In my next blog, I explore further the effects of the shortage of maths teachers in the UK and put forward some possible solutions.

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