I went through school hating maths with a passion.
This was engendered by one maths teacher for three years who regularly threw chalk, board dusters and insults if you didn’t get it first time, followed by a second – the head of maths, no less – who would write complicated formulae on the board and turn to the class with: “You girls won’t get this – Peter Hughes, have you got the answer?”
And Peter (name not changed) who went on, I believe, to become an actuary, always had the answer. He and the teacher shared the same lofty platform above a sea of ignorance in the rest of the class.
These were the days when an O level in maths meant three separate papers – arithmetic, algebra and geometry. No small potatoes. And no university place if you did not pass. I managed it by dint of much swotting and a good memory. Several girls – unsurprisingly – headed for teacher training college instead, for a certificate of education, not a degree, because they only needed a pass in arithmetic.
I recently met a young head of maths. In a school-y conversation, I lamented what seemed to be a trend for even the very brightest students to study books for their GCSE which I would have taught to year 8 or 9.
Apparently one of the most commonly taught is Of Mice and Men, a fine book, but not difficult: American, 20th century and about 90 pages long. For GCSE? My eyes are on stalks at the thought of it. What happened to Pride and Prejudice, especially for youngsters who might go on to degrees in English?
Mystification from the young maths man: “They’re too long.”
“Too long for what?”
“For a student to be able to really understand it and keep up with all their other subjects.
“Staffrooms,” he explained, “are much more collegiate now – much more about how can we together make sure that this percentage of students gets the five A* to C grades they need. No subject can poach time. If they can get an A* grade with a short, easier book great – more time to spend getting their heads round the hard stuff, like maths.”
“Wait a minute. So it’s not about teaching the subject, any subject, it’s about doing what must be done for the kid to get the grades in as many subjects as possible?”
“So is it true whole tranches of pupils are sitting GCSE maths in year 10 – and what’s that all about?’
“It’s about confidence. If you take the higher-tier maths papers and get less than a B, you don’t get a grade at all. Lots of our kids don’t have the confidence that they are going to get a B, and are afraid even to try the higher paper.
“So we put them in a year early and they get their C. With a C in the bank, they will take the risk of trying for a higher grade in year 11.”
“Which should not be hard to get, given they still have a year of teaching?”
“Er, I suppose so.”
“So tell me, does this turn out good mathematicians?”
“Good God no, we get kids to pass the exam.”
“Is that the height of the staff’s ambition?”
“Of course – because that’s what we are judged on, all of us. It’s not about education any more, or love of the subject or any of that crap, it’s about getting the most kids the five A* to C grades that they need for a job, and that the school needs to avoid special measures.”
So the moral (for politicians, policy-makers, the media?) is: tell schools what you want, and they will do what you ask. But be very careful what you wish for.
You said you wanted grades, when (probably) what you meant was “education”. But grades, for better or worse, are exactly what you might get.
This guest SecEd editorial has been written by Hilary Moriarty, who taught English for 25 years and is now national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.