Teachers' 'shocking' maths takes toll

April 23, 2004

Maths skills among many schoolteachers are "bordering on the shocking" and are exacerbating already serious problems facing universities in recruiting the next generation of science students and academics, it was claimed this week.

Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, London University, told a committee of MPs that maths was crucial to studying and understanding science, technology and engineering subjects at university.

Professor Smith, who gave evidence about his report on maths education to the education and skills select committee on Monday, pointed out that the minimum maths qualification necessary to teach in primary schools was grade C at GCSE.

Professor Smith said that so many school pupils dropped maths either before or straight after GCSE that universities were finding it impossible to recruit sufficient prospective entrants with A levels in the subject.

Professor Smith, whose report was published in February, set out reforms for maths education for post-14-year-olds. He said: "I think there are serious issues about teaching. It is in part about the supply of competent, knowledgeable teachers.

"It does seem to me that it is bordering on the shocking that a grade C GCSE is the minimum level of competence for a primary school teacher."

He said that if there were a limited number of specialist maths teachers, they were more likely to concentrate on teaching post-14 pupils.

Therefore, he said: "There is a lot of evidence that a lot of lessons at key stage three (11 to 14-year-olds) are being taught by non-mathematics specialists."

Speaking to The Times Higher , Professor Smith said: "I am not sure that a blame culture helps, but whatever we are doing that is causing kids in droves not to continue with maths post-16, it affects universities because maths is a prerequisite for science. And there is a connectivity with the future supply of scientists."

Professor Smith said his report chimes with the 2002 report on higher education science careers by Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford. Sir Gareth's report highlights a shortage of undergraduates and postgraduates in maths, engineering, chemistry and physics.

But Professor Smith said that while universities had legitimate concerns about the quality and quantity of entrants with maths A levels, they had to shoulder some of the blame.

"Universities have a legitimate evidential whinge that competencies in maths are not what they were ten or 15 years ago, but they could have done a lot moreto help solve the problem rather than just identifying it."

Professor Smith recommended improving the supply of specialist maths teachers, reworking the school curriculum and assessment process and giving better support to teachers, including a national centre of excellence in maths that would harness the resources of higher education.

Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, was grilled by the committee on the reform of the school curriculum as proposed by the Tomlinson report on 14-to-19 education.

He said that the QCA was looking at a "ten-year timeline" to implement many of the reforms, which are designed to improve educational standards amid evidence of slipping standards.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the committee, said he was horrified by the length of time it was likely to take. "There are a hell of a lot of kids going to miss out, aren't there?" he said.

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

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