After my previous blog post on science teachers, we set out to maintain balance by taking our Vision for science and mathematics education to two maths teachers’ conferences, the Mathematics Association (MA) conference at the University of Keele and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM) conference in Daventry.
So how does the maths teacher community feel about our Vision?
Even more so than in our conversations with science teachers, teacher shortages dominated discussions. Teacher shortages were recognised as the root cause of many issues and concerns.
For instance, Clare Christie, a (rare) primary maths specialist based at Ashley Down Primary School in Bristol, spoke at the MA conference and immediately noted that progress in maths education is hampered by a lack of qualified maths teachers. Existing teachers are overworked and opportunities to engage in professional development are limited by increasing workloads.
Last month I discussed the shortage of maths and physics teachers and the steps the government is taking to address this issue. Both MA and ATM delegates and speakers recognised that as well as hiring more teachers, improvements in retention rates are also vital. Sue de Pomerai (of Innovators in Mathematics Education) argued that recruitment polices would not be successful if the causes of poor retention rates are not first addressed.
One of the key elements of Vision is ‘a strong supply of science and maths specialists’. Teachers at MA thought that primary teachers should be recruited as ‘strong generalists’ and then supported throughout their career to deliver high quality maths education through subject specific continuing professional development (CPD).
Alison Clark-Wilson, of the UCL Institute of Education, described this nicely as ‘stability and evolution within teacher professional development as well as within the curriculum’. This was echoed by Anne Watson at ATM, who noted the current lack of continuity and structure within professional development provision.
But maths teachers at both conferences reported difficulties justifying time off from teaching to engage in CPD activities, due to the cost of cover, aforementioned teacher shortages and complexities of timetabling at secondary.
Normalising CPD and making it part of daily practice was considered an important policy goal by ATM audience members and panellists. They also discussed the potential for cooperative learning approaches to help teachers build confidence and knowledge.
One of our MA panel members, Fay Hefford, a secondary maths teacher at Abingdon Academy, noted the value of giving maths subject teachers free periods at the same time, to share good practise and co-ordinate CPD activities.
The much greater provision of CPD support for maths teachers in other (often higher PISA performing) countries was noted by panellists and audience members at both conferences, with a suggestion that the UK could learn from these examples.
Observations from the UK government’s Shanghai exchange scheme received particular (though not universal) praise. MA audience members recognised the challenges of introducing the hundreds of hours CPD that Shanghai maths teachers receive in the UK without first solving teacher shortages.
Finally, many participants were supportive of arguments for evolution not revolution in the curriculum. They agreed that the curriculum should evolve at a speed that gives teachers time to master the material and build confidence, more free time to do CPD, and the space to concentrate on improving their teaching.