From the TUC

Getting our sums wrong!

19 Sep 2008, by in Economics, Working Life

Some have described the past week as the most turbulent for the financial system since the Great Depression. As that week closes, we must renew our focus on building a strong, sustainable economy. In particular, consideration of the needs of the ‘real’ economy, the industries that create the (real) wealth and provide the (real) jobs, is necessary.

With that in mind, today’s Ofsted report, which argues that nearly half of all maths lessons are not good enough, makes more gloomy reading. Children are being taught to pass exams, but are not equipped with the mathematical skills or knowledge needed for their future, according to Ofsted. The report says: “Pupils rarely investigate open-ended problems which might offer them opportunities to choose which approach to adopt or to reason and generalise. Most lessons do not emphasise mathematical talk enough; as a result, pupils struggle to express and develop their thinking.”

This is not a new problem. In the TUC report, ‘Hybrid Cars and Shooting Stars’, we said “(The study of) science is about exploration and discovery, and the way it is taught should reflect that fact. There is a danger that such an approach could be undermined by high stakes testing and the search for the “right answer”.

Tests exist, of course, to allow us to monitor and improve standards. That’s an important objective, but when the pressure to improve test results takes priority over actual learning, the whole process becomes counterproductive. Without excellence in science and maths, the UK stands no chance of competing in the global economy of the future.

We also need more excellent maths and science teachers. At present, according to the Royal Society, we don’t even know the true number of maths and science teachers in the UK. We can be fairly sure that, whatever the right number, we need more of them. Better pay for teachers is part of the answer. Proper recognition of the public sector ethos, the desire to serve that motivates teachers, is also important. And proper training for careers advisers is essential. Careers advisers who gender stereotype, by imagining that boys will be more interested in science and maths, while girls will wish to focus on softer skilled subjects, may simply reinforce existing patterns.

Trade unions can help to highlight these and other issues in their responses to the Government’s science and society consultation, which closes on 17th October.