On 11 September, MEI held a Parliamentary Reception at the House of Lords, kindly hosted by Lord Broers, FRS FMedSci FREng. It was attended by stakeholders from a wide variety of backgrounds in education, academia and industry, all of whom had a keen interest in improving mathematics education.
Filling a room with avid supporters of mathematics education proved to be a recipe for countless lively conversations on the theme of the importance of maths education, the current reforms and what is needed to bring about increased participation post-16.
MEI's Chief Executive, Charlie Stripp, gave a speech on the state of the mathematics education in the UK and the vital importance of raising participation post-16. His key message was the urgent need for long-term support to recruit and develop more maths teachers in order to meet the government's admirable ambition that, by 2020, the vast majority of young people will study maths to age 18.
"International evidence from the OECD suggests maths education is of great importance to both personal and national success. Success in science, technology, engineering, finance and commerce are all dependent upon the ability to use maths. The government recognises this and has introduced extensive reforms, intended to improve maths education and raise participation post-16.Their stated ambition is that, by 2020, the vast majority of young people will study maths to age 18 – currently less than 20% do so, compared to over 80% in most other developed countries. This is must be addressed or it will hold back our economy.
"Last year, funding for post-16 education was reformed to ensure that far more students who fail to get at least a C in GCSE maths by age 16 continue with maths post-16. As a result, an extra 30 000 17 year olds re-sat GCSE Maths this summer. Schools and colleges rose admirably to the challenge, but the pass rate fell from an already poor 39% to less than 36%. Further reforms this year mean even more will re-sit next year, as well as many of those who failed this year's re-sits!
"The maths curriculum reforms are extensive:
"Maths A level numbers are currently a cause for celebration – they've increased from around 50k to over 90K in 10 years. Further Maths A level numbers have almost trebled, to 15K, in the same period. MEI takes some credit for this through its development and management of the Further Maths Support Programme, whose work has supported these increases. However, we are very concerned that changes to A level funding could make it far more difficult for schools and colleges to offer Further Maths.
"For the reforms to succeed fully, we also need to change our national attitudes to maths. Many of us have a belief that you are either good at maths or you are not. Evidence shows that if you put the effort in, you get better at maths (like just about everything else) – since many don't believe this, they don't think it's worth putting in the effort! Many of us also believe that maths is something you have to learn at school, but is of no real use outside of education, whereas employers and universities consider the ability to use maths as possibly the most valuable skill you can have. These false beliefs are often reinforced by parents and teachers and are readily picked up by young people – particularly when teaching is so often motivated by training children to answer exam questions, rather than by educating them to develop real understanding of maths and how it is used.
"MEI's work is underpinned by the philosophy that children develop a better understanding of maths if they are taught to connect mathematical ideas and to see how maths can be used in context. It is our experience that children taught in this way do at least as well in exams as those 'taught to the test'. Properly taught, maths becomes enjoyable to learn and develops as a key transferable skill, useful throughout work and life.
"MEI strongly supports the policy to greatly raise participation in post-16 maths, but the policy cannot succeed without proper support for schools, colleges and teachers. We have a serious shortage of maths teachers and these ambitious reforms mean we need many more of them. New teachers must be recruited and both new and existing teachers need extensive professional development and resources.
"MEI has the expertise to help meet these needs, supporting the work of the NCETM, the Maths Hubs, the Core Maths Support Programme and the Further Maths Support Programme. However, the scale of the reforms and the level of the maths teacher shortage mean more investment is needed for the reforms to succeed. If not, there is a danger that a great opportunity will be missed and that could have a lasting negative effect on our national economy."
Stella Dudzic, MEI's Curriculum and Resources Programme Leader, then shared an early teaching experience, which guides her thinking regarding the future of mathematics learning and the methods by which students should be challenged, and discussed some of the work MEI is doing to improve post-16 mathematics education:
"Early in my teaching career, I started a lesson by telling the class we would be learning about percentages. A girl sitting near the front said, "We've done this before, Miss." So, I started to think about how to make the lesson more challenging and then she added "And we didn't get it." The lesson did not go well but I learnt something.s learning about how VAT works - they will need to know about this when running a business. Of course, they need to learn about percentages in many different contexts but starting with something that is connected to their ambitions helps to answer the question of why they need to be doing mathematics and gets around the problem of them trying to learn again something which they found difficult the first time.
"For students to believe that mathematics is both something that they want to succeed at and something that they can succeed at, teachers need to believe this first. Many teachers are teaching a GCSE resit class for the first time; this makes introducing and disseminating new teaching approaches a key part of our work.
"Students with a good pass in GCSE Mathematics by the age of 16 may not realise that mathematics will be useful to them in their life, work and study. In our development of Core Maths qualifications, resources and professional development, our starting point has been real situations which students might encounter and the mathematics has come out of that.
"If you go to a football match, as well as seeing the game, you might see some of the spectators eating pies. How many pies are eaten at football matches at the weekend? Making some reasonable assumptions allows an estimate to be made, even though we don't know the exact number. Some students will find thinking like this interesting for its own sake but it also has applications to making decisions about whether it is worth exploring a new business venture. The research we did when developing resources and qualifications for Core Maths suggests that estimation is a skill that is valued in both business and higher education.
"Some students who have been involved in trialling Core Maths resources have said that it was different to (and better than) their GCSE lessons. For teachers, adopting a different style of lesson and starting with the context, rather than with mathematical techniques, requires them to learn new skills. We have run professional development to enable teachers to use discussion in lessons effectively so that the intended learning takes place. This has given teachers the confidence to start teaching Core Maths.
"A level Mathematics courses have not changed for over 10 years. Many teachers have never taught a different Mathematics A level. The move to linear courses with an increased emphasis on reasoning, problem solving and mathematical modelling allows us to refocus on what we actually want learners to be able to do. Having said that, the current A levels have been very successful in increasing uptake of mathematics and we don't want to lose that. In terms of development, it is proving challenging to design qualifications that meet the new learning intentions while maintaining the current level of difficulty of A level qualifications. We trialled some example questions with students last year and it was encouraging to get some comments that showed they enjoyed the more challenging questions but they also reminded us that students need to be taught how to tackle such questions."
"There is a difference between challenging students and throwing them in at the deep end and seeing what happens. It is essential for teachers to have support in terms of both resources and professional development so that they feel able to prepare their students for the new style of examinations. Our experience with professional development at A level tells us that with support, teachers will rise to the challenge of the new qualifications and will enjoy trying new teaching ideas but they need to be given the time to get to grips with new ideas and to try things out with their students.
"Here's a quote from a teacher who completed our extended Teaching Advanced Mathematics course."
"I have regained the enthusiasm for teaching that I had when I started out over a decade ago."
"The changes in mathematics education are a tremendous opportunity to reinvigorate mathematics teachers – if they are given the support they need to be able to teach the new courses with confidence."
Charlie then concluded that:
"The reforms mean there are now three clear maths pathways to meet the needs of all students post-16:
"MEI welcomes these pathways, but we fear the lack of maths teachers may jeopardise the vision of greatly increased student numbers. Be assured that MEI stands ready to help provide the support schools, colleges and teachers need.