Schoolzone blog: Secondary maths - a very dark space

Secondary maths - a very dark space


12 Oct 2015

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It’s a very dark space at the moment. Head of maths, Oct 15

Maths teachers are under the cosh at all levels, just now: the extra weighting in the new P8 measures, staff shortage alerts, increased GCSE content and levels of difficulty... etc. We convened a focus group of maths teachers from around the country, representing a range of schools from special needs to grammar, to ask them what they thought, where they were up to, how they were coping with the pressures, what solutions they'd found and so on.

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I have to admit, we thought that there would be a lot more trouble afoot than there appears to be... P8 is indeed increasing the pressure on maths teachers, but they're very phlegmatic about it. As far as these HoDs were concerned, the focus of the maths teaching is still about doing as well as possible by their students. Yes, there should be a broadening of focus away from C/D borderliners - a good thing, they said - but otherwise, teaching will be pretty much unaffected by the new accountability measures. A downside appears to be that supplementary GCSE maths courses, such as statistics are likely to be hit - largely because of the impact of P8 on other subjects needing the time.

The biggest issue is the high degree of uncertainty at all levels, which for maths is not going to dissipate for at least the next two years, probably not for the next five, when a new government could be in power and anything might happen.

The main problems are really to do with assessment: at KS3 there is nothing to measure students against, while at GCSE there are just (so far) meaningless numbers. We have a description of the content to be taught at both levels, but currently it's not really possible, despite awarding bodies' best efforts to produce specimen papers: schools have a long history of not trusting these, since they've always been miles away from real papers.

Nothing seems very solid at the minute. I’m going to hold on to my budget until we know what kind of animal we are looking at. Head of maths, Oct 15

Apart from one or two notable successes, publishers have largely been wondering why schools aren't buying new textbooks in the volumes they would normally expect at times of curriculum change. The problem is that schools want endorsed textbooks (in maths this is mostly about the provision of exam-style questions), so these need to match the chosen spec, but schools can't choose a spec for the long term until they've been through real exams and seen how well their students have done - and they may not do as well without a textbook. A bit of a catch there.

Then, when they've struggled through an uncertain two years at GCSE the same students face the same thing at A-level. At the risk of sounding gloomy, there are (at least) three possible negative effects of this situation:

  1. teachers have to struggle with a high degree of uncertainty during the first four years of a new, tougher, unmonitorable accountability system
  2. students are turned off maths by this high degree of uncertainty over the next fours years
  3. textbook sales don't recover as maths teachers have two to three years being weaned (if that's the right word) off them

A possible positive is that publishers of subscription based resources do better, because of the increased flexibility this medium offers. Another, possibly, is that schools become more mutually supportive: the maths hub / teaching school initiative hasn't touched any of the HoDs involved in our discussion.

All possibles, many unknowns: a dark space, indeed.



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