We’ve had an endless stream of ‘I’m a celebrity, let me fix your schools’ types this year; Jamie Oliver, Toby Young, Joanna Lumley, and now, god help us, Carol Vorderman. (Interesting to note that this Conservative supporter wouldn't be allowed to teach maths, as Gove doesn't want teachers with anything less than a 2.2 - she has a third.)
Vorderman – a few unsavoury facts
Just a few words about Vorderman: a) She doesn’t have a maths degree, she has a third class degree in Engineering, b) She acted as a spokesperson for the rogue debt consolidation company First Plus, forced to cut the contract after criticism from the debt charity Credit Action c) She fronted a property company that collapsed leaving many with unfinished properties abroad which they had paid for, d) Sacked from Channel 4 after being seen as a money-grabbing lightweight on £1 million a year, e) After a disastrous appearance on question time, where she spouted extreme right-wing views, Dimbleby said in the Times, “It lasted an hour, this programme...it felt like more to me.” f) she also has a long history of being partisan on educational politics and attacking the Labour Party.
So let’s imagine the following conversation at Tory Party headquarters, who commissioned the report when they were in opposition; “Suggestions to sort out maths in schools? How about Carol Vorderman? Does he have a maths degree? Well no, and we’ll have to hide that fact that she’s encouraged dodgy debt management, fronted a failed property scam and spouts reactionary nonsense whenever possible. But, she does have one redeeming feature. What’s that? She’s ‘rear of the year’. Call her.”
To be fair, apart from Carol, the team is academically sound, and has made some interesting observations and recommendations.
They conclude, that the maths curriculum is a catastrophic, irrelevant mess, geared towards higher advanced maths at the expense of functional maths. I couldn’t agree more. Teaching 14 year olds how to use the quadratic formula and surds is just plain stupid. Roger Schank often asks his academic audiences whether any of them can remember the quadratic formula, and he rarely, if ever, gets a correct answer. Why worry then that, “Only 15% of students take mathematics, in some form, beyond GCSE” as the current GCSE is hopelessly geared towards high-level, irrelevant, abstract maths. I think 15% is reasonable, if not a little high. And if “Nearly half of all students ‘fail’ GCSE Mathematics, why worry, as it’s a flawed, overly-academic and partly irrelevant qualification.
The GCSE curriculum is loaded with esoteric algebra, trigonometry, geometry and number theory that 99% of learners will never, ever use in their entire working lives. Note that this is at the expense of functional maths in two senses, 1) it squeezes practical maths out of the curriculum, 2) it is a massive demotivator, reinforcing the idea among millions of children that ‘they can’t do maths’.
The suggestion that we have a mainstream Maths GCSE that focuses on functional numeracy is therefore wise. This is what I had at school in Scotland many moons ago. I did an O-level in Arithmetic (practical) and another in Maths (theoretical). Makes sense, although I’d reframe Arithmetic as ‘Practical Maths’. Employers aren’t complaining that people don’t have ‘maths’ skills, they’re complaining because they don’t have basic ‘functional numeracy’.
At one end of the spectrum the team are spot on – primary school teaching. The teaching of maths at this level is woeful; mostly because the vast majority of teachers have very low numeracy skills, and partly because of poor teaching methods. In the same way that whole word teaching had a catastrophic impact on literacy; ill-informed, half-baked, non-integrated and inconsistent approaches to numeracy teaching have also been catastrophic. There is the recommendation that the teaching be rooted in the real world, through practical tasks – something that’s been recommended for decades but been studiously ignored in schools.
Almost all primary teachers stopped maths at 16
The recommendation of a minimum B pass in GCSE in maths before you’re allowed to teach the subject sounds like a bad joke until you realise that our children are being taught by largely innumerate primary school teachers. It claims that, “Almost all of those on primary PGCE courses gave up studying mathematics at age 16. So, by the time they taught their first classes, they had not studied mathematics to any meaningful level for at least six years.” Only about 2% of primary school teachers have a degree in science or any STEM subject.
Most maths not taught by maths teachers!
Another shocker is the fact that in secondary schools, “24% of all children in secondary schools are not taught by specialist mathematics teachers”. Read that again. Most maths is not taught by maths teachers! However, the team have fallen into the trap of seeing the solution to bad schooling as yet more schooling. Forcing young people to study maths until they are 18 is just plain lunacy. If you haven’t got basic, functional numeracy into your head after 11 consecutive years of maths, another two years isn’t going to matter and the idea of ‘maths citizenship’ is just weird.
The report points out 1) the people teaching maths are by and large amateurs, 2) the curriculum is too esoteric, 3) we need two separate maths qualifications. I agree with all of these findings but we’re chasing moonbeams here. First, the educational establishment is so wedded to dated PGCE recruitment and curriculum practices that it is almost impossible to reform without radical restructuring. You have to get teacher training out of the Universities where it reinforces the old academic model and change the methods of recruitment. Secondly, you have to break the back of the gold standard, A-level mindset, where University entrance is the primary goal of all schooling and everything else is classed as failure. It ain’t going to happen.
Download full report here.