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Thursday, 29 September 2016

Teacher shortages: Is there a crisis in maths?

The maths skills taught in schools are crucial to the future chances of pupils – setting them in good stead for the world of work and beyond. They’re also crucial for the economy, with numerate, intelligent employees needed to help drive the country forward.

Yet maths is also a cause of great concern. Just a year ago the now-ex education secretary Nicky Morgan vowed, in typically politically loaded language, to ‘wage war on illiteracy and innumeracy’ to ensure pupils get a good grounding in the basics by the time they leave primary school. At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than one in ten students are leaving the system with an A-level in maths or physics.

Worries over the teaching and take-up of maths are one thing, but can they ever be eased at a time when there is a ‘crisis’ surrounding the number of people in the teaching profession, who are able to impart their mathematical wisdom?

Survey shows a bleak picture

The word crisis is perhaps bandied about far too readily, but has been applied to the situation surrounding teaching this subject following the results of a new survey by the Mathematical Association.

The TES reported its research, which showed how maths departments were being forced to rely on non-specialists or even supply or unqualified teachers.

It found that fewer than half – 46 per cent – of maths teachers said their departments were fully staffed in time for the new term in September.

In a survey of 520 staff, almost a fifth said two or more teachers were still needed to ensure they were fully stocked and ready to go. It also found that 54 per cent were having to teach alongside non-specialists, 29 per cent had unqualified staff in their department and 30 per cent felt they would probably leave the profession in the next few years.

David Miles, spokesman for the Mathematical Association, said: “I am aware of people teaching A-level who don’t have that level themselves; an awful lot of maths teachers don’t have maths beyond GCSE.”

In response, the Government said it is investing £67 million on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) to recruit 2,500 more maths and physics teachers and provide specialist subject knowledge training to thousands more people. It also wants to coax former teachers back into the classroom to tap into their expertise.

Maths not the only area to struggle

Yet it’s not as if maths is the sole area of concern when it comes to teacher shortages.

The Government has now missed its own teacher training targets for each of the last four years. It also receiving a stinging attack from the Public Accounts Committee for having ‘no plan’ to solve this. While the Department for Education might deny this, there is no hiding from the fact that there is work to do.

By the early 2020s there are set to be 800-900,00 more pupils in our classrooms as a result of a rise in the birth rate.

So, while there is clearly a specific issue to address in terms of maths, the problems here might be seen as symbolic of the wider issue in the profession. Rising pupil numbers alone means that there needs to be a big drive to get more people in teacher and teaching assistant jobs to cater for them.

If that recruitment drive helps to claw in bright graduates with a flair for teaching maths, then the problems unearthed by the Mathematical Association will be addressed as part of that.

It’s clear that there is an issue to address and, if it isn’t, it’s unlikely that the concerns over pupil literacy, A-level take-up or workforce skills can be addressed either.