You're reading: Travels in a Mathematical World

People may not like Vorderman, but her report?

The Conservative Party have published a report, “A world-class mathematics education for ALL our young people”. The initial reaction I saw on Twitter was very negative, entirely directed to Carol Vorderman’s personality characteristics and her qualification to chair such a study. On Monday when I tweeted a link to the report @slewth asked, “I mis-read that as the Voldermort report. Did I do wrong?” My reply: “Indistinguishable, from the Twitter reaction I’ve seen”. But what about what is actually in the report?

There are positive responses to this report from representatives of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), Confederation of British Industry (CBI) & the Wellcome Trust given in the Conservative website news story announcing the publication.

There is also a positive response from the Royal Society on its website, “Royal Society response to the Vorderman report on mathematics education“. The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) published a press release, “The Vorderman report recognising mathematics is critically important“, responding positively. The IMA Twitter feed (to which I contribute but not this post) said the report “highlights importance of @IMAmaths CMath and CMathTeach qualifications (pg. 84)”. The Royal Statistical Society published a statement, “Britain will benefit from moves to boost young people’s ability with numbers, says Royal Statistical Society“, again “warmly welcoming” the report.

There are certainly others, and I don’t propose a complete collection, the point is I haven’t been able to find an organisation saying negative things. I spoke to Martin Smith, who works for the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (ACME), via Twitter and he agreed, “Nope! Messages are very similar to ACME“. Although the name at the top of the report is Carol Vorderman, there are four group members and two research assistants listed. The two group members and one research assistant that I know I respect very well.

Still, a lot of the chatter I’ve seen on Twitter has been negative.

A lot is made of the qualifications of Carol Vorderman to carry out the investigation. The Times Higher Education refers to the taskforce “led by TV presenter Carol Vorderman” and the Sun, with characteristic charm, refers to “TV sums whiz Carol Vorderman“. Both seem to be denigrating (or perhaps I’m just reading that into it).

I don’t like when people say she’s “a brilliant mathematician“. I don’t know what she’s like at mathematics (is there some evidence of this I’m missing?). I know she’s said to be very quick at mental arithmetic (accidentally confessing to not watching Countdown, oops) and I think people saying she’s a mathematician are misunderstanding what mathematics is.

Much is made of her third class engineering degree. I don’t think it’s fair to say that what qualification a person did over 30 years ago should have any effect on what they do now. People are also critical of products she endorses.

Still, not much of this has anything to do with the report or its recommendations. I’m not interested in Carol Vorderman as a person. I’m interested in content of the report and its recommendations, and more particularly, what Government will do about them. (There’s an ambiguity there: the report was commissioned for the Conservative Party when in opposition, so it isn’t a report of this coalition government.)

Put up as key headlines by the Conservatives in their news release about this:
- report argues: “A child’s mathematical ‘career’ is effectively determined by the age of 11″;
- recommends compulsory maths in some form until the age of 18, replacing the present GCSE maths system with one offering two GCSEs and improving the mathematics subject knowledge and confidence of primary school teachers and new trainees.

Notes from the executive summary (incl. probable omissions and errors):

Policy and regulation:
- define maths as ‘subject of critical importance status’ & exempt it from statutory blanket regulations which are applied across all subjects;
- involve higher & further education and employers in school-level education;
- greater attention paid to students who “are deemed to ‘fail'”, system should account for different needs of these students;
- relax regulation to allow for innovative practice;
- some form of mathematics education for all students to 18, “merely to bring us into line with the rest of the developed world (with whom we compete economically)”;
- “major changes” in the working methods of Ofqual and Ofsted;
- exam boards to act collectively.

Curriculum and assessment:
- as well as daily maths lessons, primary school children should practice number work in other areas of their daily routine;
- financial numeracy within the curriculum;
- end Key Stage 2 National Test (SAT) in its current form as it is a bureaucratic system of accountability which is detrimental to children’s mathematical education;
- the new National Curriculum should not predetermine teaching methods or the chronology of learning;
- the present system of one GCSE is not suitable for such a diverse cohort, offer two (as exists for English Language and English Literature);
- reward students who achieve a higher standard in a smaller area of the curriculum, rather than a low standard across a much wider curriculum;
- no changes to present AS and A levels, it is not intended that all students take AS and A level mathematics;
- support FMSP.

Teachers:
- improve subject knowledge and confidence of primary school teachers and new trainees (including requiring B at GCSE for new primary school initial teacher training);
- status of secondary specialist mathematics teacher better defined, ring-fence funding for CPD of these teachers;
- review teacher CPD to ensure it is cost-effective.

Parents:
- help offered to parents with their maths skills.

Universities:
- cap on undergraduate numbers in mathematics is in conflict with need for more specialist mathematics teachers so Government inter-departmental cooperation is needed, calls for university mathematics departments to “be allowed to take on all suitably qualified school leavers”;
- many other university departments (incl. STEM, economics, social sciences, nursing, computer science “and many more”) should return to requiring A level mathematics or increase their mathematics requirement.

Even if you don’t read the report there’s an interesting diagram on page 11 (page 19 of the electronic document) which might be worth looking at.

So what do people think? I’ve seen a few newspaper articles that basically report the key recommendations as the Conservative website does. I’ve seen a few blog posts agreeing with the recommendations, for example this post “Numeracy” by Athene Donald is being passed around Twitter. Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, writes an opinion piece in the Independent: “A maths challenge we must answer“.

What about dissenting voices? These are few and far between, as far as I can see. Kevin Houston blogs to say the main problem with the two headline recommendations about compulsory maths to 18 and two types of GCSE: shortage of teachers. He sees the latter of these as more likely, as these students are already being taught mathematics but wonders where the extra teachers will come from to teach the extra students from 16-18. However, the report says both must go together, and blames in part the lack of these for the shortage of teachers and lower skills of primary teachers that are causing many of the problems highlighted. Kevin’s post has an interesting analogy starting “What would I have recommended?” that is worth reading.

A blog post at fullfact.org questions the reports use of the OECD data on international comparisons of mathematics education. The blog Political Scrapbook points out that the report praises private tuition in other countries and is concerned about the conflict of interest because Carol runs an online private tuition company.

I asked for views on Twitter or Google+ on the actual report content, rather than Carol’s credentials. Not many were forthcoming. Sharon Evans would like to see the report recommendations “work out okay” but is concerned that governments tend to change policy too often. Sharon says, “What is needed is sustainment of policy so that things have a chance to settle down as change cannot happen or be measurable overnight and we shouldn’t expect it to be.” Peter Price, writing as an outsider (he’s lived in Australia since he was 13), points out that many similar issues are faced in Australia and agrees with the recommendations “almost 100%”. He highlights recommendations around maths education for would-be Primary school teachers, bureaucratic monitoring of the system and resultant so-called ‘teaching to the test’ and he regards “idea that all school leavers should have completed mathematics study to 18 years” as “pretty essential”.

So what will Government do to act on the report and its recommendations? Only time will tell.

Tags: ,

About the author

  • Peter Rowlett teaches mathematics at university. His views do not represent those of his employer. His column at The Aperiodical is Travels in a Mathematical World.

2 Responses to “People may not like Vorderman, but her report?”

  1. Anonymous

    This report makes total sense and is long overdue. I suspect those criticising it are still cradling their own past and probably maths experiences! They need to see that this is point….this report is innovative and conducive to higher standards and progress for all.

    Reply
  2. Joshua Prettyman

    We deffinately need to think about maths education, especially primary. I’ve argued before (http://ratiologicus.blogspot.com/) that maths is a language, like french, and needs to be taught consistantly. In science we’re told all sorts of stuff only to later find it was lies (by neccesity the curiculum simplifies metabolism etc.) this can’t happen in maths- it’s too confusing and puts people off.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

$\LaTeX$: You can use LaTeX in your comments. e.g.

$ e^{\pi i} $
for inline maths;
\[ e^{\pi i} \]
for display-mode (on its own line) maths.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>