Our maths teachers perform similarly to those in Ireland, Finland and Hungary

New report recommends better qualified maths teachers and University Practice schools for teacher training


England’s trainee teachers do worse in mathematical tests than their peers in some major economic competitors, according to a study published this week  by CfBT Education Trust, although  not as badly as some critics might have expected . A significant gap though exists  between the best and worst maths trainee teachers in  the Primary and Secondary sectors  in England  according to the study –  International comparative study in mathematics teacher training-Recommendations for initial teacher training in England; Professor David Burghes; CfBT Education Trust 2011 .

The research shows that general Primary trainees in Japan are better mathematicians than our Secondary School specialist trainees.  In the Primary sector England is significantly outperformed by Japan, Russia and China, where trainee teachers take the equivalent of A-Level mathematics before entering teacher maths training.    The international audit compared results from trainee teachers in England, China, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Russia and Singapore.

Professor David Burghes, however, at the launch, urged caution in the way the results are interpreted as the results are not fully representative of each countries performance and the intention was not to establish some form of performance league table (which hasn’t deterred the media though  from doing exactly that) . For example, in respect of England, although being far from disgraced in this study, our position may be exaggerated because a significant proportion of the Primary sample were in fact mathematics specialists. In Japan the tests were conducted with pen and paper rather than through ICT which might have afforded some advantages to the Japanese cohort.

The aim of the study was to seek an understanding of good practice in the training of (primary and secondary) teachers of mathematics, based on evidence from a variety of mathematically high performing countries around the world, and using a longitudinal study to provide recommendations for effective training.

However, accepting that there are some caveats, Japan significantly outperforms all other countries according to the study.  China and Russia perform above the  average for the participating countries.  England has a similar performance to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland and Ireland.  However, England has a relatively high standard of deviation compared to China, Ireland and Russia, showing the wide variation in performance between the participating trainee teachers in the sample.

The study found that in England many teachers in  the primary sector are not as well qualified in mathematics as those in other countries, whilst in the secondary sector,   ‘we have suffered and  continue to suffer from a very transient  workforce. This is illustrated by the fact that in a six-year period, we train a completely new cohort of secondary mathematics teachers!’

One of the authors’ key recommendations is to raise the maths entry requirement for primary teachers. To teach at primary level in England teachers need a GCSE grade C in maths or above. But the report recommends increasing this, over time, to an AS level ie  a dedicated AS-level on mathematical concepts and applications even for trainee Primary teachers. And it calls for  all secondary maths teachers, who are currently expected to have an A-level in maths, to first undertake a two- or three month Mathematical Enhancement Course (some, as now, would  require a longer course). The MEC course would focus on giving them both the expertise they need in school mathematics topics  and also some of the pedagogical skills that  underpin effective mathematics teaching.

The two-year study for CfBT Education Trust was carried out by researchers at the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at Plymouth University, and subjected 1,400 teachers to a series of mathematical tests. There was a group of between 100-200 volunteers taking part at both primary and secondary level in each country.

Professor David Burghes, said: “We can be reassured that England is not disgraced here, although it could clearly do much better. One of the main issues for concern is the wide variation in standards across the profession; this could perhaps be explained by the relatively low entry requirements for teacher training and the lack of specialism at Primary level.”

The report goes on to make other recommendations including:

Strengthening the link between subject knowledge and teaching during the Secondary PGCE courses.

Provision of support for secondary NQTs to complete modules for a Masters qualification, necessitating a reduced timetable for three years.

The establishment of University Practice Schools (across all subjects) which are akin to University Practice Hospitals in the Health Service for the  training of doctors.

University tutors should teach in University Practice Schools on a regular basis demonstrating lessons to trainees and working collaboratively with staff.

Tony McAleavy, Education Director at CfBT Education Trust said: “Teaching needs to become a respected profession in this country, on a par with the law and medicine and then we will attract more able people to the profession.  In line with government thinking, the establishment of University Practice Schools otherwise known as University Training Schools, is the most important decision that could be made for taking the profession forward. This would ensure less variation in standards and would ensure that there would be peer support for new teachers in their first practice; something that has currently been lacking. This additional support may also help to retain teachers in the profession for longer periods of time.”

The author concluded following the audits   that a prerequisite to be an effective teacher of mathematics is that “you are confident and competent in mathematics at a level significantly above that at which you are teaching”.

There will be an international launch in Abu Dhabi on 10th April of reports titled: “Enhancing training of teachers of mathematics: Full report” and “Enhancing the training of teachers of mathematics: Report Synthesis” which will be available both in English and Arabic.

David Burghes of the  Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching (CIMT), University of Plymouth, has been Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of  Plymouth  since 2005; Russell Geach is a researcher at the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching  (CIMT),


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