UK expert adds impetus to solve the maths divide

A national adviser should be appointed to help revive maths in schools and universities, a Canberra forum will be told next week.

Rowbotham, J. (2012, February 1). UK expert adds impetus to solve the maths divide. The Australian, p 28

Maths for the future website

A national adviser should be appointed to help revive maths in schools and universities, a Canberra forum will be told next week.

Organisers have recruited as key speaker Celia Hoyles, who fulfilled the role in Britain during a slump in school maths enrolments a decade ago.

"We are done with reviews and need to press on with a reform agenda," said the forum's organiser, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute director Geoff Prince.

The forum, called Maths for the Future, comes as the sector is still digesting the recent removal of the HECS discount for maths and science university students. "The general feeling is that it was an isolated measure that would have been more effective if taken in conjunction with other measures," Professor Prince said.

Professor Hoyles agreed that a concerted approach was required. She said recent and current British governments "know maths is crucial".

"There's something about a unified approach with a political wind behind it," she said from London.

If the rollcall for the Australian forum is indicative, the problem at least has the attention of the main players. It will be opened by chief scientist Ian Chubb, who is campaigning to boost maths and science enrolments across the education system and is due to deliver advice about it to Prime Minister Julia Gillard by the end of the month.

Other speakers include Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans and Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, straight off a plane from Europe.

In Britain's case, senior maths enrolments bottomed out at 44,000 in 2002, a 10,000 drop on the previous year. As a result a top-level advisory committee was established to be a single voice advising the government.

Professor Hoyles was appointed chief adviser for mathematics in 2004, as part of the fightback plan. By 2006, the year before she signed off from the job, enrolments were bouncing back.

She traced the difficulty to the early 2000s, when students were given more options for their A level (senior) subjects. At the same time a regime of testing was introduced that in the case of maths, she believed, did not give students enough time to assimilate what they had been taught.

"The students did badly and word spread that this was a hard subject and risky if you needed good grades," she said. "They eventually changed the testing structure."

The good news is "we got through it", although there is a way to go: 10 days ago ACME chair Steve Sparks called publicly for maths to be compulsory for all until the ages of 18 or 19.

Recent British press reports say senior school maths enrolments are up 40.2 per cent in the past five years, although how to ascribe credit for this is not clear. According to University of Manchester biostatistician Nathan Green, blogging on The Guardian website, economics played a part -- maths was seen as a better bet in a tough jobs market -- but the outreach Professor Hoyles talks about was also important.

This included a concerted effort by governments, learned societies, universities and professional associations.

The government met the costs of setting up initiatives such as the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics she runs, which focuses on professional development and has just been given extended funding.

"It starts with the teachers," Professor Hoyles said.

While there was no empirical proof that teachers had benefited from their engagement with the centre, the fact that so many made return visits to its website and communicate with each other through it -- what she called "building a community" -- was regarded as a strong de facto measure.

In general terms, Professor Hoyles said, authorities should take the time to ensure the teaching and learning agenda, the curriculum, and the performance, or testing, agenda be aligned. "It should be a coherent whole. It's easy to say, but it's important."

And she believed in Britain's case, a recent discernible lift in public understanding of the importance of maths was thanks in part to the emergence of maths champions such as Marcus Du Sautoy, a media-savvy maths professor from the University of Oxford, and veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg's radio series In Our Time.

It remained to be seen what version of this might work in Australia. "We don't want to be prescriptive," Professor Prince said. But AMSI hopes for the adoption, via communique, of at least the national maths adviser idea and a five-year national awareness campaign for tertiary and school sectors, including professional development for teachers and careers advisers.

Other proposals include targets for senior school enrolments and university incentives such as undergraduate scholarships for maths and science, HECS-free places in bridging programs for mathematically underprepared students and a HECS-free honours year for students who are committed to becoming teachers.

Whatever was decided, Professor Prince said the forum marked the start of a concerted push for action.

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