Christopher Collins–Written evidence (EDU0003)

 

  1. I am writing this evidence in an individual capacity. I am a trainee secondary mathematics teacher who at the time of writing is teaching a 60% timetable and have been working in a secondary school since September 2022. I am a maths scholar, a university graduate, and member of several mathematical associations and societies. During my course I have taught all age ranges from Year 7 to year 11 and looked in great detail at the development of the National Curriculum and the maths curriculum in particular. I have a wealth of first-hand and second-hand experience from my more experienced teaching colleagues of the 11-16 curriculum.
  2. The current mathematics curriculum does not adequately prepare young people for either employment or for post-16 education. The focus on knowledge and facts within the curriculum has been interpreted by schools and heads of maths, quite fairly, as a spec for passing examinations. This focus means the majority of students only learn methods, with little to no real understanding or application, as this is sufficient to achieve a passing grade. Only the highest achieving students are afforded access to mathematical concepts and true problem solving. This means students do not have the understanding to follow a mathematical subject at A-Level or university and do not have the skills, independence or resilience to be effective workers. The breadth of the mathematics curriculum is also far too wide reaching, and in every school I have visited all classes are behind in covering their schemes of work – there is simply too much content, meaning there is no time to stop and look at subjects in depth and develop understanding or to look at concepts and attitudes. In my own experience none of the content I studied from year 7 to undergraduate studies was necessary for my employment – but the skills and attitudes I developed have been immeasurably useful. If I were studying today those would simply not develop.
  3. The pace of the curriculum is having a severe impact on pupils as understanding makes way for covering content at pace. This lack of understanding leaves pupils unhappy, uncomfortable, and frightened to take risks. Increasingly students will refuse to answer questions if they do not know the precise method they need to use, if any question differs in the smallest degree from the few examples they have been taught. Further the importance of grades at GCSE and lack of any other assessment method means that schools regularly test students in similar fashion, focusing on knowledge and methods over any interest in understanding or unfamiliar problem solving. Pupils are often tested with two mock GCSE in year 11, a further mock in year 10, a MAT data collection twice every year from year 7 through to year 10, and where our mathematics curriculum has been split into topics they complete topic tests every 2-3 weeks. This amount of testing is exceptionally stressful on both pupils and on teachers required to mark, analyse, and feedback on them. I have seen far too many students developing anxiety through this unfairly high stakes testing factory.
  4. GCSEs are not a wholly effective method of assessment. Even within mathematics the lower passes at GSE represent little understanding of mathematical content, but concepts covered since years 2 and 3 and a memorisation of methods and formulae with no understanding. Many students also show exceptional understanding and ability in the classroom but cannot access tests, are plagues with anxiety about them, or their additional needs make test inaccessible even with existing special arrangements. The old coursework system in GCSE was favoured by many mathematical societies and gave an opportunity for students to work at their own pace, show their creativity, problem solving, presentation, and communication skills – none of which can be effectively tested by the GCSE examination. The reintroduction of coursework, with a comparative reduction in the curriculum content to allow time for pupils to work on coursework and reduce workload to allow teachers time to properly individually assess said coursework, would show a far greater range of pupil’s ability and help to mediate the many failings of a time restricted, high-stakes and hig-pressure, examination. Teachers are professionals who know their pupils and can effectively monitor their work for signs of cheating or dishonesty, and can provide assessment based on a pupil’s work in a setting far more similar to the world of employment than an examinations hall.
  5. It is not surprising that there are issues of recruitment and retention. Teachers face continuing depreciation in real terms of their working pay and conditions and continuing increase in every aspect of their workload. Teachers need support from qualified teaching assistants – it is shocking that unqualified teaching assistants and teachers can be used for the education of young people, and it is unfair not just on the pupils but on those teachers and assistants who are unsupported and have no understanding of effective teaching and learning techniques. To support teachers purely in the curriculum we need more depth and less breadth in content, we need more time to teach, we need less requirements and expectation of constant assessment.
  6. The focus on knowledge and facts and methods can be further alleviated by teaching mathematics in particular in a way that is genuinely mathematical. Our current obsession with knowledge leads to problem solving taught as an exercise in applying narrow methodology, as a final point if time is allowed, and as such is restricted to only the highest attaining students aiming for grades 7 and above. For problem solving to be taught truly mathematically, in line with Polya and the mathematical community, we must have a true balance of teaching for problem solving, teaching with problem solving, and teaching through problem solving. Much focus has been placed on the curriculum              of Singapore but research has shown this has the exact same failings in teaching problem solving as our curriculum. A far better example would the Japanese curriculum and their method of teaching through problem solving.

 

5 April 2023