When I first thought up the name of Maths Heaven, many on my media course questioned it. They said – “sounds like hell to me!” and “shouldn’t it be Maths Haven?” and even “sounds a bit religious, are you sure?”
I could understand these comments completely, because anyone who knows me well knows that I’m quite firmly opposed to any organised religion, having rejected my Church of England upbringing. At the age of around 10 I sang in the church choir, I wore a habit and walked up the aisle of many a church wedding. I know that I was incentivised by the need for pocket money (the church paid weekly small change to our pack of 10 year olds) and after the age of about 12 I rejected the whole “god” idea.
So yes, Maths Heaven is a strange name. However through my career I’d met so many people who needed salvation from learning maths. They would describe how their previous experience of maths had been terrible and they had flunked it or had completely lost confidence as they aged. Retraining themselves in maths was the way they could break through their barriers, whether it was for for increasing their employability or chance of promotion, building their confidence with everyday calculations and budgeting, or they simply wanted to train themselves to think logically and methodically. So I thought, maybe there needs to be a maths sanctuary?
People’s relationships with maths in anglicised countries such as the UK tends to be one of two things; either very positive or very negative. At parties when I tell people I’m a maths teacher there seems only to be two responses.
- “Oh, I lovvvve maths! So logical! I love Sudoku! Tell me, what do you think about Fermat’s Last Theorem…” To my shame I tend to glaze over during this kind of conversation because truthfully, I have no interest in any kind of higher level mathematics. I hate Sudoku. It’s fine, but it’s for other people, not me.
- “I hate maths. I failed maths. My teacher hated me. I couldn’t do it.” This person tends to drift slowly away from me and towards the punchbowl so I don’t pursue it – it’s not a good talking point.
I remain convinced that these two totally different responses are a result of our education system in the UK. School pupils seem to go two ways. They either have a “top set” good experience with a dedicated teacher who helps them to improve and think independently, take Higher Tier and head off to university, OR they have an utterly horrendous experience which involves being streamed into the bottom set in year 7, dumped with a PE teacher who has been bribed to teach 4 extra hours and is disinterested and/or underpaid, they take Foundation Tier and are in class with students who are more interested in chucking pencils about and Snapchatting pictures of their trout pout to Steve from year 12. The difference between student experiences of the maths classroom is WILD.
In a SurveyMonkey I created in October 2019, I asked some of my students to comment on their previous maths experiences. These were students from further education, all of which were studying maths in order to improve their GCSE grade or Functional Skills. It wasn’t a huge sample (81 responses) however the results were telling.
For the question “Do you like maths?”
- 26% (21 students) “I absolutely hate maths”. 26%.
- 31% (25 students) “Meh, I need maths but I don’t like it”.
- 22% (18 students) “I don’t love maths but I don’t hate it”
- 20% (16 students) “I like maths”
- 1.2% (1 student) “I love maths, pass the Sudoku!”
For the question “What are the main reasons you didn’t attain a grade 4 in GCSE Maths at school?”
It’s really important to note that 27.5% (22 students) responded that they had lots of different maths teachers at school. That’s one of the most common reasons I get from talking to my students in class; that they had lots of different teachers throughout years 10 and 11; one student commented on this survey that their class had 7 teachers just in Year 11. SEVEN. How can any student make movements towards attaining a good grade in GCSE Maths when their teacher barely knows their name? It’s a national disgrace that has been perpetuated by funding cuts and fewer incentives for good teachers to stay in their profession.
I do feel that in the last 20 years (50 years?) this has occurred due to funding cuts and increasing levels of child poverty. It is certainly ten times more challenging for a child from a working or benefits class background to attain a good grade in mathematics than it is for Cynthia the public schoolgirl who has had a home tutor since year 6.
How do you incentivise teachers to stay in a school or college? Inner city London suffers this far more in my experience, but it has been happening nationwide for years. With a majority female workforce which is reliant upon hourly paid lecturers on zero hour contracts to cover the gaps, the ground has been constantly shifting for maths teachers, regardless of whether they’re committed to their profession. I know hourly paid lecturers who have been forced to take on two or three contracts in order to supplement their income as their hours are cut in line with funding cuts. One maths teacher I knew used to work nights in a taxi cab firm answering telephones. He spent his day in a daze, yawning and looking like death warmed up. What kind of life is that, where your day involves teaching 15 year olds from 9am and your “evenings” involve wrangling drunkards into cabs until 4am? How can somebody in that position truly dedicate themselves to the profession?
I’m in a full time permanent teaching position. Despite budget cuts and increasing class sizes, my employment is pretty secure and has been throughout the Covid-19 disaster, because I am digitally competent and confident to teach entirely online if I need to. Even if my post were to be made redundant, I’m gonna be able to find work in pretty much any maths teaching job, online or in person. I am very fortunate – I know this.
But what about those teachers (and students) who don’t get on well with digital learning? What about those people who have lost most of their income source during COVID-19? Where will they be in one year, five years, ten years time? It’s a grim outlook. Let’s drop the mantra “no child left behind”. Many children will be left behind. Many teachers will leave the profession because they’re forced out. What’re we gonna do about it?
I’m not going to pretend I know the right answer but I know what the wrong answer is, and that’s cutting funding and staff, and continuing to employ people on zero hour contracts. If they’re not good enough to be on a permanent contract, then why are you employing them? Why are we accepting that a teacher has the qualification to teach a subject, but then we don’t give them any reason to invest time and effort in the college or their students? We must give teachers a reason to stay; a reason to invest in their own professional development and to get to know students well enough to see them grow and achieve. And we must make effective training the heart of the profession – digital training; training to help them communicate with students effectively; training to manage their workload. That way, teachers have a reason to stay, and students have access to a stable classroom, and a teacher who is invested in their future.
Oh I know I’m holding up an ideal, and how can this ever come to pass? However, if I don’t write this, I get really bogged down in the helplessness of it all. I’ve considered moving out of London and changing jobs, but that means abandoning the very students that I want to help. I’ve considered management (and done it, albeit only for 2 years), but it wasn’t the right post – it incorporated management of an ALS team and wasn’t actually managing the Maths department so that distracted me from maths and my passion. As an Advanced Practitioner in Mathematics my frustration is that I can only do so much – I can train staff and offer bespoke in-house training, it’s part of my job, which I love. However, if staff don’t want to or don’t have time to develop themselves, I can’t help them. Differences in opinon also get in the way, which prevents departments from addressing their individual needs. Something further needs to be done to incentivise training for teachers to reach professional standards, and unfortunately (and against my instincts) I don’t believe it can be voluntary.
For example, who remembers the IfL (Institute for Learning)? I joined the IfL in 2007 just before it became compulsory – at which point if you were an active lecturer you had to join and log 30 hours of training (pro rata) every year to retain your professional status. In 2012 there was a huge hoo-ha about the membership fees being transferred to the teachers to pay; compulsory membership became voluntary and so most members allowed their membership to lapse. The IfL was a great idea in concept, with an objective to “promote education and training for the public benefit by the enhancement and maintenance of the quality, standards and practice of learning and teaching.”
It all feels very bleak. I named Maths Heaven in order to try to make sense of the nation’s attitude towards maths. It’s up in the clouds; an imaginary, beautiful world where you can go to enable yourself to improve, being greeted at the doors by St Theta, receiving a goody bag with a compass, a calculator and a rhubarb and custard lolly; you’ve been saved from maths purgatory and released into enlightenment. I dunno, in hindsight it does sound a bit god-y and magical and all too good to be true. Sigh. Maybe I should have gone with Maths Hell! The visuals would’ve been more fun to create.
How important is maths to us, really? We don’t seem to want to assign enough value to it in this country and other anglicised nations such as the US and Australia.
And we love to perpetuate this attitude. “Sir Richard Branson didn’t need Maths” Branson famously didn’t pass GCSE Maths, but do look it up, he dropped out of school. Until then he attended a public school; his mother was a successful entrepreneur, his father a barrister and his grandfather Sir George Branson, a Judge in the High Court – Branson had dyslexia and is clearly an astute businessman however however had no need for GCSE Maths with his upbringing.
Lord Edit: “Baron” Alan Sugar is another businessman who famously left school with only one GCSE, but everybody seems to ignore that at age 16 he obtained a job at the Ministry of Education as a statistician. I doubt it was a GCSE qualification (most likely an O Level in his era) however who’s betting on the subject that he DID pass?
The media rolls out a list of names EVERY YEAR in August to console those students who didn’t get the GCSE grades they wanted. In some respects I agree that we shouldn’t hang everything on GCSE grades, because many people go on to have successful careers without the “expected” qualifications, and especially in the changing digital world where skills can actually be learned, practised and developed independently of educational institutions. But yeah, the vast majority of students who don’t pass GCSE maths (with a grade 4 or higher) will need to use maths in their future, whether it’s for household budgeting, at work, even in their hobbies and pastimes. The level of denial on this point is high – I once commented on a forum discussion about maths in careers and although there were many posters supporting what i was saying (i.e. maths is pretty much in everything) I was set upon by a collection of furious posters, claiming that I was making it all up and that they hadn’t used a single bit of the maths they learned in school and one person even stated that they left school with an E in GCSE Maths and have worked successfully in construction for 20 years and they now earn more than me. They were not only making a hell of an assumption regarding my salary, however the idea that somebody working in construction thought that they weren’t using maths of any kind was deeply disturbing to me. I mean, it’s fundamental whether you regard getting to work on time to be a feat of mathematical skill, or whether you are engineering a bridge over a motorway to be strong enough to support lorries. Maths. is. Involved. At. Every. Single. Stage..
I think it’s easier for people to claim that maths isn’t important to their career because it doesn’t require them to do anything about it. Improving skills in maths requires effort and time. It means you have to work out what you can and can’t do. It reveals your strengths, but more importantly you have to face your weaknesses. Who is going to admit that they can’t divide without the use of a calculator? There’s a huge stigma in society regarding innumeracy, (it’s not as bad as illiteracy, but a society explicitly intent on improving basic maths and English skills must feel very threatening to people who didn’t pass their GCSE when they were in school). Can you imagine being a successful businessperson and being exposed as “bad at maths”? I empathise strongly, but doubling down on the reasons why people need maths qualifications and refusing to admit that lack of skill (or inability to spot errors) is unhealthy and damaging to our society, our economy, to our children, to our education system and to our safety (we’re back to that motorway bridge). Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
I could write here about the difference in attitudes and culture of maths in anglicised nations and the comparison with eastern countries such as Japan, Korea, India, Singapore and so on. What makes their culture of learning maths so different? Are their methods any better? How do their education systems differ to ours and why are they more successful? Are they more successful, or are they just different? I think that’s a whole different blog post (or ten).
Ok, I’m done. Maybe you didn’t make it this far; fair enough. I’m gonna write more regularly over the summer as it’s cathartic and I’ve reset my password. Get in touch, tell me what you think. Tell me if there’s any topics you want me to write about.