After years of stagnation, how maths is getting better - Tim Oates

After years of stagnation, how maths is getting better - Tim Oates

I am not a doom-merchant or pessimistic seer; for me, it’s the evidence which counts. And this tells me that all has not been well in maths education in England. Certainly, the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths has done wonderful work in building professional expertise. The maths associations have done remarkable things to keep up the profile of maths education and bolster participation. MEI and NRICH are providing innovative qualifications and materials. But when I look across the totality of evidence available to us, there are just too many sources of negative evidence to deny that fundamental problems exist. 

International surveys indicate marginal gains in some years and amongst certain ages, but overall, give a picture of a wide spread of attainment and stagnant standards. Other domestic evidence corroborates this picture of no overall improvement in the last two decades in key areas of maths. The evidence from Higher Education suggests inadequate preparation in maths, affecting a wide range of subjects, not only science-based and obviously maths-hungry subjects. Other jurisdictions attain significantly higher standards and better equity in maths outcomes at the end of primary education. A shortage of teachers affects all phases and research on ‘maths anxiety’ suggests fragile understanding induces stress in teachers which is readily communicated to their pupils.  A recent comparison of textbooks and resources shows that other nations’ resources have outstripped our own in quality. It’s not good.

But things are happening. Maths education has been pushed high up the policy agenda. Evidence is driving the policy. The National Curriculum has been revised using domestic evidence and international benchmarking. The specification for GCSE maths emphasises the need for deep, broad learning. Maths as an entitlement for all learners has been promoted – its importance for individual progression and for society and the economy has been recognised. The role of high quality textbooks and materials has been acknowledged. And the need for maths beyond GCSE, for all learners, on all routes, has been identified. The reform of A Level maths and Further Maths should thus not be seen as an isolated policy interest, but as a vital part of a jigsaw – an extremely important rung in a ladder of educational progression. The increased involvement of universities in design and content issues will aid linkage with Higher Education. The work on other forms of post-16 maths will ensure that complementary examinations will enhance the qualifications by lessening the pressure on A level to serve too many purposes. Policy in maths education is beginning to look coherent, evidence-driven, and the current consultation on A Level fits this picture of a rational, realistic drive towards improvement.

Tim Oates 
Group Director of Assessment Research and Development
July 2014