We’re letting down maths and students who need a better grasp of the subject

Not as easy as 1,2,3. Kolett/Shutterstock

Education minister Elizabeth Truss has travelled to Shanghai to find out the secrets behind Chinese pupils’ mathematics success. I suspect she will find that it’s a cultural phenomenon, impossible to import to British ways of being, doing and thinking.

In 1982, the government of the day published a report into the teaching of mathematics in schools, The Cockcroft Report. It drew on a range of research, including an exploration by a TV team at Yorkshire Television who went out onto the streets and asked passers-by “How many 7p stamps can you buy for £1?” One of the replies was “Yer wot?” Another asked “Are you serious?” Most of those asked could not work out an acceptable answer.

To quote a recent column by the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, “It damns alike those who boast ‘I was never any good at maths’, and those who teach it so badly that millions loathe it.” And it appears not a lot has changed between 1982 and 2014.

Not just for scientists

Students in many subjects are arriving at university without the basic mathematical skills they need for their course. Loughborough University Mathematics Education Centre (MEC) runs two drop-in support centres to which any student in the university, any day in the week, can bring a mathematical problem or difficulty and get one-to-one help from a mathematician in the centre.

The students who afford themselves of this help come from mathematics, science and engineering studies, of course, but, perhaps more surprisingly from arts, humanities and social science programmes as well.

Students who are highly qualified (they have been accepted for an academic degree programme) and believe that they left mathematics behind after GCSE – breathing a big sigh of relief in many cases – find themselves needing number, symbolic and representational skills for use in their own subject areas. For many it is a shock.

These highly qualified students have been let down by a school system that has allowed them to escape with a paucity of mathematical expertise. For students who also have some kind of learning difference, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or Asperger’s syndrome, it is a serious concern.

Creativity in the classroom

In his column, Jenkins wrote, “For Britain’s pupils, maths is even more pointless than Latin.” For these undergraduates it is certainly not pointless -– its lack is a severe deficiency. Jenkins continues, “Of course children need to be taught the rudiments of number, proportion and probability, as they do to read and write.”

He is right, but what a way of putting it. Better to say children need to know and understand and be able to use and apply number, proportion and probability as well as algebraic and spatial reasoning. I would add that all children have the right to enjoy learning number, proportion and probability, while they develop understanding of these concepts, and that the teaching should be skillful, knowledgeable and creative.

The words “need to be taught”, assume that such teaching is straightforward and unproblematic. It is not.

For teaching to be of the quality that pupils deserve, we have to fund the skillful, knowledgeable and creative education of teachers, not only prior to their work with pupils, but during their entire teaching career.

Loughborough is currently extending its mathematical work to offer a Postgraduate Certificate of Education in mathematics. This is at the same time as our government is running down many such programmes, expecting that schools will take on this provision.

But schools in general are not qualified to teach teachers, they do not have the time, expertise or funding. A consequence of such moves is that over-stretched and underfunded schools will be blamed for yet more of the deficiencies of the British educational system.

Jenkins writes: “Schools should turn their attention to creativity and social and emotional capacities”. I agree. These aspects of education are just as important in mathematics as in any other subject area. But his argument that maths “is easy to test, and thus to measure, unlike vague, slippery humanities” is just plain wrong.

One of the problems that schools face in teaching mathematics effectively is that it is tested in a system that reduces it to what can be tallied and measured. It is such reductionism that turns pupils into rote handle-turners and teachers into “mind-trainers”. GH Hardy (quoted by Jenkins) is famous for the words: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a master of pattern”. In our educational system we need more of the likenesses to painters and poets to produce students confident in mathematics.

France is going faster. KouK's, CC BY-NC-ND

As an addendum, the next generation of high speed trains in France will travel at more 300 miles per hour. The French network is being expanded into the rest of mainland Europe. Thousands of engineers – mechanical, civil, electrical, materials, computer – will be involved in the design, development and production. There are massive technological challenges they are trying to overcome. All these engineers need much more than a very rudimentary knowledge of number, proportion and probability.

At Loughborough, we are highly skilled in the mathematics education of engineers. Elizabeth Truss and her colleagues could learn more about British culture and its educational mores related to mathematics by coming to talk to us, rather than taking a trip to China.