If you’re going to put the disadvantaged into a box, why not just nail it shut?

I’m currently attending a set of talks on preparedness for teaching first-year mathematics (if you’re at IISME, hi!) and the ‘pre’ talk was by Professor Celia Hoyles, from the UK, talking about her experiences in trying to get mathematics out of the doldrums in the UK.

Three things struck me about her talk.

  1. She had put a vast amount of effort into local and national initiatives, but there was no certainty in the future funding because of budget cuts.
  2. Too many students were exposed to mathematically-underqualified teachers. These teachers did not have sufficient mathematical training to actually be mathematicians and, in many cases, had no higher mathematics at all yet were teaching into that space.
  3. Even where funding was put into developing teachers, professional development was the first thing to be cut and the government-supplied teacher training scholarships, originally paid at a  flat rate, was being awarded based on performance in the teaching degree.

The first fact is demoralising but it is the world we live in.

The second is terrible, because the vast majority of students in disadvantaged areas would never see a mathematics specialist, or someone who had seen any mathematics at all beyond that which they learned at 16 – certainly not at University.

The third fact caps it all off by saying that programs are doomed to be cut unless people put a priority on these programs! The kicker in the statement about training scholarships is that student teachers who completed a teaching and mathematics program at university would receive 20,000 pounds for a 1st Class degree, 15K for 2:1, 9K for 2:1 and nothing for a 3rd class degree. Now, for those unfamiliar with the UK system, 3rd class is not just a pass – it’s a little (not much) more than a pass. So you have passed your exams but we will pay you nothing for it. If that’s what you were depending upon – tough. Go and do something else. Even though you passed.

Would a University qualified mathematics teacher, whatever the degree, be more likely to have better mathematical knowledge than someone who didn’t study it all the way to the end of school?  If the answer isn’t ‘yes’, then some serious introspection is required at certain higher educational institutions!

Fact 1 leads to Fact 3 – budget cuts lead to reduced expenditure and the most likely way to do that is to allocate money so that a reduced bucket goes to the ‘more deserving’. This is a tragedy in the context of Fact 2, because Fact 3 now means that a number of perfectly reasonable teachers may end up having to leave their degree because their funding dries up. Which means that the money expended is now wasted. So Fact 1 gets worse and Fact 2 gets worse.

Professor Hoyles started her talk by stating that her fundamental principle was that every student who wanted to study mathematics should be able to study mathematics, but 1, 2 and 3 conspire against this and restrict knowledge in a way that create a pit from which very few students will crawl out.

She mentioned a couple of reports, in outline, that I refer to here:

Report: The Schools White Paper – The Importance of Teaching
Report: “A World-Class Mathematics Education For All:…” Carol Vorderman (Chair) Aug 2011. Nuffield Foundation 2010.
 I have no answers here, just food for thought.

2 Comments on “If you’re going to put the disadvantaged into a box, why not just nail it shut?”

  1. Juliette Woods says:

    Point 2 is why I’m now volunteering for the Mathematicians in Schools program.


    • nickfalkner says:

      Which is fantastic, Juliette. Claudia’s already in the Scientists program and I’m planning to join as well, when I get a moment.

      I think that the best way we can solve this problem is to stick our hands up and help. Thank you!


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