The line of best fit isn’t always a straight line

By Newman Burdett

Wednesday 28 August 2013

I remember the first time I was taught by a good maths teacher and discovered with joy that maths was not just endless repetition and learning of formulae but a hidden language, a series of codes and puzzles, a playground of the mind; and I was hooked. At the time, preparing for my O levels, I did not appreciate that my mathematical journey was a reflection of the changes that were happening in maths education through developments such as MEI.

However, as we argue in our recent NFER Thinks policy paper, Why mathematics education needs whole system, not piecemeal reform, in spite of the great work that has been done on improving maths education in England over the years, there remain some serious problems. Maths education is complex. The needs of learners are very varied and their ability range at age 16 is huge, which means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is inappropriate. With the GCSE reforms currently underway, now is a good time to take stock and make an appeal that we approach these reforms in a mindful way, building on the lessons of the past.

In the NFER Thinks paper, we argue for more comprehensive and better planned routes through maths education. I was lucky in that, once I had good teachers, I was allowed to sit MEI maths early and was pushed by teachers who were enthusiastic about maths to go as far and as fast as I could. Without this access to appropriate routes I am convinced that rather than wanting to go further in maths I would have continued to coast, doing just enough to get by with the occasional piece of chalk thrown in my direction for reading under the desk when I failed to notice the teacher asking me what seven times eight was. And my life would be more limited as a result.

Because I now enjoy and understand maths, I still use the maths I learnt at the time – whether working out whether my shed trusses would take the weight of a living roof (it is still standing) or modelling different budgets at work.  At school, I had the chance to study interesting maths and had enough time and support to decide what I wanted to specialise in for my A Levels. This gave me both a broad base and the in-depth statistics I needed to study biological sciences (and which I still use surprisingly often in both work and daily life).

This is not a paean to past O levels (they were arguably more susceptible to bad teaching and bad assessment than modern GCSEs), but to being taught by a maths department that cared and made a real effort to provide for the needs of all. I also, belatedly, acknowledge a debt to those maths teachers; I probably did not notice what a profound impact they had had on my life back then.

In acknowledging the importance of those good teachers, I feel we need to make sure we give their successors a maths education system through which they can feel proud of leading a new generation of learners –not one that relies on teachers searching for solutions, but where the paths are clearly laid out and understood.  We need a system that provides for the needs of all learners – be they the most able or those that find maths hard – and challenges each of them to progress as far as they can.

I was lucky, but many weren’t and many won’t be if we don’t ensure that the reforms we make to our maths education system provide routes for them all to achieve. So if you have ever felt maths was to be endured rather than enjoyed – either as a student or a teacher – then please read our paper and let us know what you think.