This topic is specifically designed for media or other requests for information / help from Mumsnet members. We ask those organisations requesting help here to pay a fee of £30 per request as a contribution to the site (when you've typed in your request, you will automatically be taken to a WorldPay page where you can pay by credit card). Many thanks. NOTE: Mumsnet does not check the content of these requests nor verify any links posted here; we'd like to remind you that it's wise always to be cautious about disclosing any personal data.

The problems with maths education

(19 Posts)
mariejoubert Thu 11-Jul-13 13:02:22

I've been reading and analysing reports related to maths education in the UK (see It seems to me that the views of parents are under-represented.

I'm particularly interested in what parents see as the reasons why we don't seem to be doing well at maths. I'd be grateful if you could contribute your views on this very short survey:

Talkinpeace Tue 23-Jul-13 19:09:00

- Too many teachers with poor maths skills (particularly those who qualified in the early 1990's)
- Societal acceptance that being bad at maths and science is a joking matter
- Employers have become too darned lazy to train people, they want it done by the taxpayer
- Politicians constantly undermine teachers in the eyes of parents so weaken their ability to teach

noblegiraffe Thu 11-Jul-13 22:54:43

I think setting is a good thing!

When Y7 come to our school we don't set them till half term, based on our own assessments. I find it really difficult to make sure they are all catered to. I am well aware in this mixed ability setting that I really fail the lower ability children because I don't have enough time to support them. I also fail the high ability children because although you can chuck extension work at them and they'll get on with it, they still have to sit through stuff they've already done (while the low ability kids sit through stuff beyond them).

I know the research shows that mixed ability teaching is better for middle and low ability kids (mainly Jo Boaler?) but it really doesn't feel that way when you're looking at Johnny who got an N in his KS2 SATs and is just waiting patiently for someone to come over and tell him again what to do, while Jimmy who got a level 6 has already finished. Open ended tasks might improve the situation but that is not how we are trained to teach and the curriculum is not set up for it.

Anyway, here are a couple of thoughts I've had on the problems with maths education.

1) teachers teach to the test, and the test isn't a good one. This is the main issue, IMO.
League tables with maths as a specific measure means that teachers have to teach to the test. It is more than their job's worth not to.
Maths GCSE is not fit for purpose. Employers want a qualification that shows the student is numerate, colleges recruiting for A-level want a qualification that shows mathematical excellence. Maths GCSE does neither. Learning at the top end is not examined in depth as they reduced the three tiers to two. At the other end kids are taught stuff that they don't really understand in order to gain extra marks (like the kid I taught who got a G and couldn't remember his times tables, but could tell you that f+f+f=3f). The exam is full of straightforward calculations (e.g. 30% of 60) so kids are coached to answer straightforward calculations. They get stuck on anything that doesn't look like a question they have seen before, or one where they have to figure out what the question is asking them to do. Anything which isn't on an exam is seen as a waste of time, or a bonus, including investigations, problem-solving, and mathematical use of IT.

2) Obsession with acceleration
A bright kid is seen to have been failed by their school if they don't achieve the highest levels as soon as possible. So we whizz through the curriculum. You want to get kids to make a clinometer and use it to estimate the height of the school? Tough, you've only got three lessons to cover trigonometry so you have to do it in the most efficient way possible: tell them how to do it, then get them to answer a bunch of questions to show that they know how to do it. Because next week it's quadratics, and if you fall behind you'll never catch up. With bright kids, we want them to be enthused by maths, but there is no time to do any interesting off-piste stuff with them because they are going to take GCSE early. It's like not allowing them to read for pleasure in English; if they've finished Macbeth they can always read The Tempest. It's just a never ending slog, and that's no way to engage pupils so that they are enthused to study the subject further.

springtide Thu 11-Jul-13 20:46:56

Wuldric - the questionnaire isn't asking about your children. It's asking if you have an opinion on why so many young people are leaving school with inadequate maths skills.

Wuldric Thu 11-Jul-13 20:21:18

I clicked into the survey but found myself unable to complete it. It's too simplistic. It starts with this "Too many of our young people leave school with mathematical understanding which falls short of the needs of employers and higher education. Why?"

And my DCs will ABSOLUTELY NOT leave their schools with a mathematical understanding which falls short of the needs of employers. So I feel I can't play this game.

mariejoubert Thu 11-Jul-13 20:11:10

Thanks to all who have contributed. It makes interesting reading and when I have a few more responses and some time, I will share my analysis of the responses on my blog

The big message coming up here - but which doesn't feature in the 'official' rhetoric - is about the lack of effective differentiation. I don't particularly want to make my own comment, as I am on a data-gathering exercise, rather than a share my views exercise. But I do know that a) the research literature suggests that setting isn't a 'good thing' (to reiterate what mnistooaddictive says above) but that b) teachers think it is. (Forgive huge generalisation).

@TheFallenNinja, yes I agree it's basic! I want it to be easy for people. If you want to make a longer comment, do visit my blog and contribute your views. I'd be most grateful.

@CarpeVinum - you're more than welcome to contribute. I have distributed this survey to teachers, academics, parents ....

Thanks all!

kritur Thu 11-Jul-13 19:21:46

The standard of maths education in this country has been poor for some time leading to a new generation of primary teachers whose numeracy skills are weak. I am good at maths, I had good primary school maths teachers. We were setter for maths in juniors and the top group were taught by Mrs Tymchac who had a science degree. I did the year 6 maths curriculum twice (year 4 and 5) before they managed to find me something more suitable. Many primary teachers these days have degrees in arts subjects and things like 'early childhood studies' and a C grade in gcse maths. A browse of the TES forums uncovers many who cannot pass the basic numeracy test. Primary maths specialists would be a start.

choccyp1g Thu 11-Jul-13 18:17:02

23Balloons, your DSs sound similar to my boy; they just "get" it. All the teacher has to do is point them in the right direction, and away they go.

What I didn't realise until becoming a governor, was that most kids aren't like this, and need the concepts explaining and demonstrated concretely.

My comments on setting were more for primary level; apparently the research shows that the damage done to the ones labelled as "can't do maths" far outweighs any advantage to the top end. In any case, the top end will zoom ahead as soon as they reach secondary@, as your Ds illustrates.

@ assuming they are set at that stage...which may of course demoralise the lower sets. hmmn it's tricky, isn't it?

23balloons Thu 11-Jul-13 17:53:55


I don't understand how setting doesn't help the more able? Maybe mine are in the top 2%?

Ds1 & 2 both get maths. Ds2 is bored in primary and says he hates maths as it is so boring but I think it is the way he is being taught. He could count & understand numbers > 100 in nursery, recently he had to convert fractions to decimals & told me he wouldn't need a calculator to convert 7/8 to decimal as it was easy to do in his head 0.125 x 7, it's not something I would have though of.

Ds1 was put in top set in secondary & has gone from 5a to 7b since Sept & got a gold award in the ukmt challenge. He has never been tutored & didn't even revise for the exam. He will now be accelerated into an advanced maths class from y8. The boys in this set in y11 did their maths gcse in Nov & 26 achieved A*. I am very glad he is being set and accelerated as he needs this to maintain his interest.

choccyp1g Thu 11-Jul-13 17:36:36

I'll repeat what I put in the survey:-

<<Many children do not grasp the basics at infant stage, and when they get to primary the lessons jump around:
e.g. "this week we are doing fractions, next week we are doing money problems, last week we did telling the time."
If the children are still struggling with number bonds to ten, and place values, then all of these topics are beyond them, although some may be able to get the right answer by doing what they are told, they still won't understand it, and will have forgotten it all by next month.
There needs to be a way of making it interesting to go over and over the basics until it sticks, while at the same time engaging and developing those children who DO "get it" very quickly.>>

On the topic of setting, at DS primary they set for maths from year 3, and do not get particularly good results. DS (who probably is one of the top 2%) was bored in lessons anyway, because he was working with the top 30%, while the bottom 15% couldn't keep up in a class of the bottom 30%. Setting runs the risk of complacency over differentiating.

My (unscientific) theory is that there should be a "phonics" approach to maths, where they work through the basics in a systematic way. At the moment some of the maths is taught in what I would call a "look and say" style, with the result that the children really struggle with "word problems"

mnistooaddictive Thu 11-Jul-13 17:10:51

The countries who are doing best teach in mixed ability groups. All research shows that setting is disadvantageous to all but the top 2ish%. Always worth thinking about when we look at our education system that is obsessed with splitting children into groups who can and groups who can't. Month of birth has a far higher influence on which set students end up in then you would believe.
The problems with maths education are complex and not easily solved. I believe it is down to a lack of deeper thinking skills, and a boring diet of repetitive exercises that all blend into one and never challenge students to make their own connections and make them struggle. You need to struggle to learn maths.

I don't have secondary aged children but am a secondary maths teacher.

TheFallenNinja Thu 11-Jul-13 14:01:19


Your survey is pretty basic really, but I've done it.

I'll check back to this thread to see if any views are added, I remember my school days and how I struggled with maths. I think that the main cause of my struggle, and that of others, was a lack of support outside the actual lesson. My parents weren't particularly well educated (not a slight, they just weren't), there was no peer support as where I was educated was primarily an industrial town where few went to university and maths (or English) weren't seen as necessary as for the most part you left school and either worked in the pottery industry, some kind of manufacturing or some other vocational trade.

My teachers were OK but only available in lesson and none of my friends were really interested either.

It wasn't until my early 20's when I made efforts to improve my math skills did I realise what I had missed out on.

I guess all subjects jockey for popularity, art/drama/music (the leisure subjects I unfairly call them) are very attractive, English has a wealth of interesting literature to offer, but poor old Maths starts with times tables, I'm not sure how it's taught now but, I remember the pressure to be able to recite my nine time tables, it went downhill from there.

I was always interested in physics but of course, my maths let me down.

A bit of a ramble really but I guess but until maths as a topic can be made more 'sexy' it will always struggle.

CarpeVinum Thu 11-Jul-13 13:50:52

I was all set to make a large post, but I'm a maths teacher not a parent of a school aged child!

As a parent of a secondary school aged child I am more interested in your view than those of other parents.

So could you post anyway ?

claraschu Thu 11-Jul-13 13:47:57

I completely agree with Calmly.

There is no way to teach children who are very talented at maths and children who struggle, in the same group. If you have a child who is very good at maths you know that the "stretching" that goes on in school is almost useless. A child who is naturally good at maths should be moving at a MUCH faster pace than other kids. They don't need the repetition because they are already thinking abstractly and understanding the concepts behind what they are doing.

Children who struggle need to spend much more time with things like cuisinaire rods (I don't know it they are around any more) before they start to understand even simple concepts like multiplication.

I feel that part of the problem is that lots of primary school teachers aren't particularly wonderful at maths, and lots of secondary school maths teachers aren't particularly inspiring teachers.

TheFallenNinja Thu 11-Jul-13 13:37:36

Noble, I'd really be interested in your view.

For my own two cents, I don't think maths is championed enough. Yes it can be complex but if taught well it is of enormous benefit for your whole life.

Off to do the survey.

mumofthemonsters808 Thu 11-Jul-13 13:33:41

Done it

noblegiraffe Thu 11-Jul-13 13:24:52

I was all set to make a large post, but I'm a maths teacher not a parent of a school aged child!

CalmlyApproaching Thu 11-Jul-13 13:18:42

Will do the survey in a mo. My quick view is lack of effective differentiation. I have two children - an older DS who is ace at maths, but frustrated in lessons that are too slow a pace. He gets concepts quickly and can apply them, but isn't able to work at a pace that suits him despite being in the 'top group'.
DD on the other hand has some learning issues. She could do with frequently going back to basics, reinforcing the building blocks. Her class is taught as a whole group, so there are days where she does not have a clue where to start, despite the teacher saying she differentiates.
I think maths, more than any other subject, needs more personalised teaching and learning. HTH!

vess Thu 11-Jul-13 13:14:31


Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now