From education to employment

Reporter Michelle Price

If we needed any further confirmation that maths is not the nation’s favourite subject, Ken Boston’s speech, delivered on Wednesday to the Advisory Committee on Maths Education, said as much.

While the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s (QCA’s) Chief Executive was frank in his general observations, namely that Britain’s mathematics skills are worryingly poor, he was also positive and forward thinking, outlining the QCA’s future initiatives to provide a more variegated curriculum that should, if practice meets with theory, capture the diversity of mathematical capacity.

A Path Well Trodden?

The latter issue was offered as explanation for current failings; given that the challenge of catering for diverse academic aptitude has been for decades, and remains, a fundamental subject of educational debate, this seemed a worn line of argument to pursue. Is it really a viable argument that maths skills in particular are poor because potential is diverse and difficult to capture, when all academic potential is diverse, and presumably therefore, difficult to capture? It remained unclear why the maths curriculum should benefit from this defence, over and above any other subject.

Particularly notable for its absence was the issue of tutorial responsibility, which was obscured (intentionally or unintentionally) by Boston’s emphasis on the above issue. Obviously, and understandably, concerned not to criticise the teaching of the subject, Boston confined his observations in this area to his closing, and these were brief and generic.

Spotlight on Teachers?

While he acknowledged that teaching is important, he did not afford the issue the attention it surely deserves, and he did not address the crucial conjunction at which rules meet pedagogy. The major assumption seemed to be that curriculum and rules alone are enough to ensure success, but rules are not self-actualising, and maths GSCE is not self-taught.

Arguably it is crucial that maths teachers are especially skilled because they are tasked with communicating and explaining highly abstract concepts; while improvements in the curriculum will help them compartmentalise their teaching, it is ultimately their communication skills, their dynamism and their own aptitude, which will largely determine how the curriculum is realised in the skills of students.

Boston’s parting message was that Britain will have to prove its mathematics prowess in several league tables (that “we must climb up”), which begs further questions: will this altered curriculum be tailored to the needs of the students, or the demands of the league tables? Can the two be harmonised, or will these alterations ultimately serve the needs of the politicians, rather that the pupil?

Boston’s speech failed to explore the more fundamental conflicts that continue to trouble the maths curriculum, its teaching, and its ultimate results.

Michelle Price

Did the speech leave anything else out? Is maths a special case? Tell us in the FE Blog

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