Thu, January 04, 2024


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Maths deserts & the consultation on the Advanced British Standard

In 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for young people to continue studying mathematics until the age of 18. He argued that the economy will not be able to grow unless work is done to combat “poor numeracy” which would otherwise “cost our economy tens of billions a year or to leave people twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy”.[1]

Sunak’s vehicle for delivering maths education for 16 to 18-year-olds is a new qualification framework called the Advanced British Standard (ABS). The standards are intended to “bring together the best of A levels and T levels” into a single qualification framework. There is a consultation for ABS which closes on 20 March 2024.[2]

If the government can deliver on this vision, then the possibility of more young people embarking on a pathway that could lead them towards operational research opens and we may welcome more colleagues into the profession in years to come. While our community would warmly embrace this, a lack of qualified maths teachers may thwart the prime minister's vision.   

Lack of maths teachers

Last year, the Guardian[3] reported that 12 percent of maths lessons in secondary schools are taught by staff members who are without a maths degree, and nearly half of all secondary schools use non-specialist teachers for maths. This inadequate provision has two main causes: first, a continuous failure by the government to meet its own recruitment targets for trainee maths teachers, and secondly because maths teachers leave the profession at a higher rate (13%) than teachers in general (9%) in search of better paid work.

Writing for the Conversation[4], Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Neil Saunders (University of Greenwich) describes how the situation is exacerbated by universities closing their maths departments, further narrowing the supply of teachers into the profession.

He says: “the closing of maths departments at universities that often serve their local population means that many, not just aspiring maths teachers, can no longer study mathematics beyond A-level in their local region.”

Maths deserts

This is creating a new phenomenon: ‘maths deserts’ which disproportionately affect candidates from lower-income backgrounds.“Students with lower A-level results or from low-income families who are more likely to be living at home while studying at their local university, are disproportionately affected by maths deserts. And it creates a negative feedback loop that sees diminishing numbers going into maths teaching. This further erodes secondary schools’ ability to provide high-quality mathematics education.”

The other side of this coin is that the study of maths at university becomes accessible only to those wealthy enough to attend elite universities, afford the high fees and pay for accommodation away from home. Upon graduation, many potential maths teachers may enter the city rather than the classroom.

Jack Worth, an education economist and school workforce lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research, said, “if you’ve got a maths degree, or an economics degree, or something quantitative, then your skills are quite in demand in the labour market. So maths graduates and quantitative graduates tend to earn quite well in terms of starting salaries and career progression, which means that relative to what you could earn outside of teaching, teaching is less attractive.”

If the prime minister is sincere in his framing of the situation, failure risks losing “tens of billions a year” from our economy in the decades to come, so sufficient resources must be provided for the recruitment and retention of maths teachers across the UK.

More at:

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-outlines-his-vision-for-maths-to-18

[2] https://consult.education.gov.uk/advanced-british-standards-directorate/the-advanced-british-standard/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2023/apr/17/shortage-of-teachers-will-be-a-big-maths-problem-for-rishi-sunak

[4] https://theconversation.com/rishi-sunak-wants-more-maths-at-school-but-finding-the-teachers-will-be-hard-when-university-departments-are-closing-218652