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]