Academe to aid maths revival

September 19, 2003

Universities will be key to revitalising mathematics in schools, the chairman of a government inquiry into post-14 maths teaching has told The THES .

In a week that saw further controversy over GCSE maths, Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, said that universities must pay closer attention to what happens in schools.

"Maths departments have not been at the fore in taking an interest in school teaching," he said. "People continue to be mystified by what students know as they haven't looked at the school maths syllabus for ten years."

Professor Smith said that universities had a vital role to play in producing more maths teachers and providing professional development and confidence building for current teachers.

He said that problems with recruitment to university maths courses and gaps in knowledge would be best solved by sorting out maths education in schools. Then universities must adapt to the changing cohort of students.

The number of sixth-formers studying maths must increase, he said, adding that it was vital that universities could rely on first-year students possessing a set of core skills. In 2002, the number of students sitting maths A level dropped by 20 per cent.

Professor Smith said he would back calls to replace A levels with a baccalaureate, as proposed in the Tomlinson report on the sixth-form curriculum.

"This is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that allows people to opt out of maths at 16," he said. "We have to rethink the pathway between 14 and 19."

In France, about two-thirds of the cohort study maths after 16. In the UK, this figure is just 15 per cent. A baccalaureate system would help universities to deal with the problem of the diversity of students'

knowledge, according to Professor Smith. "It will supply a smaller core of things that universities can be sure people have mastered," he said.

"Heterogeneity is really difficult to deal with."

The inquiry is drawing up plans for a National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics Education, announced by education secretary Charles Clarke.

This would oversee a network of local consortia of universities, schools and colleges that would support maths teachers who do not have a degree in the subject (up to one in three), while offering bright teachers the opportunity to carry out research or work towards a masters degree.

"Teaching is unique in not having a codified professional development," Professor Smith said. "Teachers - above all in mathematics - need the support of every university in the locality. People should define their own needs locally rather than try for a one-size-fits-all model."

The inquiry was commissioned by the Treasury last July. The final report is unlikely to be published before the end of October.

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