Tony Gardiner: A mathematician's view of the current education scene in the UK

The current turmoil facing mathematics within the UK educational scene – from primary to postgraduate – is unprecedented in my experience. At the same time, the formal institutions and agencies on which we all depend have never been weaker. At undergraduate level the issues are mostly UK-wide; but they are being interpreted and tackled independently by individual universities, and by different groupings (Russell Group, University Alliance, 1994, Million+). The school-level agenda is complicated by the fact that the UK has four different education systems, one of which is far bigger, and more turbulent, than the other three. In England, the last three administrations (from 1979) have adopted policies that replace traditional collegiality with competition and ‘market forces’: they may speak the language of devolution; but implementation often concentrates effective control at the centre. Changes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are often less visible to most of us – with Scotland having its own strong traditions, while Wales and Northern Ireland are more influenced by what happens in England.

The experience of the last 12 months suggests that new issues, opportunities, and challenges now emerge so frequently, and with such short response times, that a candidate’s personal goals may have to take a back seat. We have to assess how best to deploy our limited energies. The range of new policies affecting mathematics is truly bewildering: changes in undergraduate fees, university targets, degree classifications, etc.; the need to inject subject-specific content into lecturer training; worrying drafts for a new school curriculum in England; new exams to replace GCSE; plans to reform A levels; moves to radically change mathematics for all students aged 16-18; increased (but as yet only ad hoc) cooperation between HE and Awarding Bodies; moves to reduce the number of exam boards; schemes to strengthen teacher recruitment (but sadly nothing on teacher retention or CPD); moves to set up “maths free-schools”; discussions on modifying the curriculum to ensure that key material is learned in greater depth; reviews of current endorsement of textbooks and Awarding Bodies’ control of CPD; etc. We have to respond to such challenges as they arise; but we also need to be ahead of the game so that we can contribute to the debate before ill-considered schemes are announced. At the same time, we should not neglect the modest, but significant, practical things that the Society can do – whether traditional activities (such as small grants and popular lectures), or new ventures (such as creating and using a UK-wide database of school teachers with a profound interest in mathematics; or encouraging the production of school textbooks with a mathematical focus; or using the DMH facilities to run training sessions for interested schools teachers or to run small workshops for specialist groups on current themes).

Our schools, colleges, and universities are more focused than they were 30 years ago; but the situation is nowhere near as positive as official upbeat reports suggest. The wider mathematical community (for example, as represented by the 20 or so groupings on the Joint Mathematical Council) shares some common values; but many of its members are struggling in the present climate. The Society has to represent mathematics and its members. It also has a role in supporting others, and where appropriate stepping up to the plate itself: for example, recent key responses from the Society – on the Curriculum Review, on A level reform, and on teacher scholarships – have attracted widespread support.

The current situation for the Society is complicated by a clear government preference for using ‘Learned Societies’ as a substitute for statutory agencies in matters relating to schools. For example: (a) The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was abolished as soon as the present government took office. The subsequent Curriculum Review was then conducted by civil servants, whose lack of experience in such matters was ‘balanced’ by consulting selected individuals and Learned Societies. (b) Current moves to reform A levels claim to involve HE – but do so either in unacceptably ad hoc ways, or through Learned Societies. (c) Scholarship schemes to attract the best graduates into teaching increasingly by-pass Schools of Education, with multi-million pound schemes being contracted out to Learned Societies (IoP, RSC, BCS, IMA). This latter trend needs to be kept under review; but so far the LMS inclines to the view that such activities should be carried out by statutory agencies with the appropriate expertise, and that our role is to contribute and comment, but not to get involved with actually delivering government policy.

Some members may find certain aspects of current political rhetoric appealing. Which of us would not welcome a little more ‘rigour’ in the

school curriculum? Who would disagree with “the importance of teaching”, or the need to encourage well-qualified graduates to become teachers? And how could one object to the idea of ‘maths for all’ up to age 18? But the details behind the rhetoric are often more problematic. The Society should remain ready to cooperate: indeed there have been many more meetings with Ministers and officials in the last 18 months than ever before. But we owe it to the profession to retain a certain independence – so that we are free to say what needs to be said. Where we have relevant expertise, and where we can operate freely, we may choose to get more closely involved; but care is needed if such involvement leads to hands (and tongues) being tied.

“May you live in interesting times” runs the reported Chinese curse. We cannot choose the times; but the Society can choose to retain the freedom to comment independently for the long-term benefit of mathematics. Rather than seek to control policy, we have sharpened our inputs in response to formal and informal consultations. We have begun to cooperate more closely with other groups – both to coordinate our responses, and to provide services to interested teachers. We must also work with, and challenge, such groups as HEA over lecturer training, and the DfE, Awarding Bodies and publishers over such matters as textbooks, CPD, and assessment. In all such dealings we should seek to be well-informed, well-connected, and above all, independent.

[Copied from LMS Elections 2012]

2 thoughts on “Tony Gardiner: A mathematician's view of the current education scene in the UK

  1. Tony Gardiner rightly refers to SOME MEMBERS:
    “Some members may find certain aspects of current political rhetoric appealing. Which of us would not welcome a little more ‘rigour’ in the school curriculum? Who would disagree with “the importance of teaching”, or the need to encourage well-qualified graduates to become teachers? And how could one object to the idea of ‘maths for all’ up to age 18?”
    This member would like to comment: ‘rigour’? Yes, but in time. Gian-Carlo Rota was one math’n, among others, who emphasised that you approach rigour via intuition – which takes time; “the importance of teaching”? Yes, but also the importance of learning. At Bristol Grammar School in the 1950s the teachers [all Cambridge men] certainly taught but most of my fellow pupils learnt very little – teaching and learning do not, unfortunately, always go together; “well-qualified graduates” ? By all means – provided they are well-qualified as teachers not just as maths graduates. Liping Ma’s book, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics emphasised that teachers need to have PUFM = Profound Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics, but her emphasis was NOT on the mathematics that maths graduates would naturally bring to the classroom, but rather the understanding of a brilliant primary school teacher.

  2. QUOTE: “The current turmoil facing mathematics within the UK educational scene – from primary to postgraduate – is unprecedented in my experience. […] The experience of the last 12 months suggests that new issues, opportunities, and challenges now emerge so frequently, and with such short response times ….”

    Agreed 100%. It seems to me that, to use an evolutionary metaphor, there are a very large number of beasts in the maths educational jungle, but there is very little interaction between them. Most of them exist very comfortably in their individual ecological niches and do very little to engage with other animals. The consequence is, inevitably, a lack of evolution and an overall stasis, only marginally disturbed as one animal after another opens its jaws to roar or shriek or howl. The other animals at best nod or paw the ground – but then return to their comfort zone.

    There is very little argument, indeed, within the mathematics education community, or rather within and between its various parts. Teachers engage in little argument with each other, and are ignored by the academic research community, which ignores them in turn. Academic departments continue with their research, usually pursuing their own particular interests, also with very little interaction with those who disagree with them. The larger beasts in the academic sub-jungle attend yearly meetings of PME and other prestigious organisations, but these do little more than allow them to report on their current research agenda prior to returning to their lair to continue on the same lines as before. Occasionally a committee is formed by plucking one designated member for each of half a dozen or a dozen organisations, which committee then deliberates, once or twice a year, its deliberations are usually secret, and anything finally published is more or less ignored.

    The only active beast in the jungle is Michael Gove, the Minister of Education, who like most ministers possesses as one of his qualifications for the job, no qualification whatsoever in education, apart from the fact that he was once a boy himself.

    We all know that the modern mathematics education ‘community’ cannot possibly resemble the Athenian agora in which, according at least to caricature, great minds strolled in the sunshine disputing over the deepest questions in philosophy while their disciples hung on their every word. The opposite situation, as I have sketched it, however, is all too easy to achieve.

    What we need – and what we must hope can surely be created – but how? – is an institutional and social means by which mathematics educators can actually behave like the scientists they are supposed to be and test their theories, vigourously and penetratingly, against the theories of others.

    That way progress lies and potential evolution. If we fail to get our act together, then big-game hunting. Michael Gove will continue striding through the jungle taking potshots at whatever target takes his fancy, and we shall have no one to blame but ourselves.

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