Posted by: Administrator | 08/10/2009

Tony Gardiner: Election Statement- Time for a change?

Members should by now have received ballot papers for elections to Council, and may wish to know why I am standing as Education Secretary against the present incumbent – who I have known and respected for many years.

I see two reasons why members deserve a chance to choose. The first reason is that mathematics education in the UK stands at a crossroads. The LMS clearly needs to engage with the main educational issues that affect mathematics in HE; and this obliges us to get our hands dirty with what goes on in secondary schools – especially at a time when we face a possible change of administration.

In the 1990s, the LMS provided valuable, effective, and welcome leadership in quietly confronting mathematical ignorance in high places and in helping to shape possible solutions. The 1995 publication “Tackling the mathematics problem” contributed to a major change at the centre, and was followed by stalwart work engaging with QCA, DfES, TDA, and work with other societies to help produce the much improved 1999 National Curriculum. Having made such progress on behalf of the wider community, LMS Council forgot the importance of “keeping up the pressure”, and chose to back away from “school mathematics” with consequences that are now clear. This move needs to be reversed.

At school level our main concern should be to work with others to steadily improve the foundation provided by the standard curriculum and the way it is taught and assessed. Too many efforts in recent years have been devoted to “sugaring the pill”, with projects (such as MoreMathsGrads) and committees (maybe our own “Mathematics Promotion Unit”) conveniently agreeing with government that they would work to “increase mathematics uptake” without trespassing on the day-to-day world of school mathematics.

When the 2008 OfSTED report “Mathematics: understanding the score” unambiguously demonstrated the weakness of much secondary mathematics teaching, we failed to support their remarkable outspokenness. On 10 July 2009 a joint LMS-IMA press release on A level “Use of Mathematics” was rushed out supporting QCA´s proposals in the face of public criticism by a group which included many senior LMS members; the press release was presumably never cleared with LMS Education Committee, whose position it flatly contradicted. The same supine approach may explain how we came to adopt the 2007 National Curriculum, which is unworthy of a modern country: the bridgehead of core content established at great cost in 1999 was jettisoned without a word from the mathematical community. Nor should we be misled by recent political spin: short-term testing is now more of a threat to (long-term) mathematics education than ever, with each pupil being assigned a “level” for each curriculum topic, and teachers being paid and promoted (and controlled!) on the basis of this Kafkaesque nightmare. To add to this plethora of mindless testing, GCSE is being “unitised” (made “modular”), so that classes can nibble at GCSE in stages starting in Year 9 – relieved of any requirement ever to “get it all together on the night”. There are some positive signs – such as the recent recovery of A level numbers: the collapse in 2002 was followed by four years of stagnation, but then annual growth of 3%, 3%, 6%, 12.5%. Everyone claims to approve of the sudden jump in 2009, but no-one can explain it; so it seems singularly unwise for QCA to choose such a time to embark on yet another round of bureaucratic tampering, when we should rather be working to reduce the resulting strains on the system by markedly increasing the supply of competent mathematics teachers.

The second reason for standing is rather different. We may have to wait before we know precise details of what has gone on in recent months; but it has all left a very bad taste in the mouth. From outside it looks as though central positions in the LMS have been used by a small group, who were so convinced that they were right that they felt unable to back off despite the clear rejection earlier in the year of their preferred manifesto. Whoever is elected will have to work hard to rebuild. But it is time for a change.

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