The great Scottish comedian Hector Nicol used to tell a joke about a signalman in the Highlands who applied for a promotion and had to sit a test. This consisted of ever more outlandish scenarios about what he would do if two trains were running towards each other on the same line of track while a series of disasters befell his signalling equipment. The punchline of the joke, after his signal box had caught fire, the points had been jammed by a lightning strike, and the line side cabinet had been destroyed by a runaway truck, was that the signalman would run down the village and fetch his uncle Alistair. When asked why, the signalmen replied simply ‘because he’s never seen a train crash.’
Uncle Alistair would now not need to worry about this omission in his life, because all he would need to do in order to see a train crash would be to look at the English education system. Mr Sunak, in order to try and undo some of the mess, has let it be known that he is considering putting all students through further mathematical studies until the age of 18. This builds on an idea that he put out during the leadership contest that, quite simply, our mathematical education system is not working.
Is he correct? Well, it has to be said that there is a considerable problem in mathematics. However, none of the problems that are in mathematical education are amenable to being sorted out by another two years of study dreamed up by civil servants in Whitehall who were asked questions by the police over illegal lockdown parties and do not appear to have sobered up since. To briefly list what they are, this gives a flavour although not a complete picture of the issues:
- The way maths is taught in schools is both prescriptive and intensive. In common with most curricula device by governments down the ages the current curriculum in math it was designed by those people who thought that it was important that everything be covered. Had we but time enough and well enough this would be a wonderful and indeed laudable ambition. Unfortunately, in this strange thing called reality that most of us inhabit but the Department for Education does not, there are things like ‘time constraints’ which makes this to put it mildly utterly impracticable. The irony is they have developed a maths curriculum that doesn’t divide into time available or add up to an effective teaching programme.
- This disaster spills over into secondary schooling. We again have at GCSE a truly enormous mathematics curriculum that is impossible to teach in a mere two years. Schools therefore have the extremely difficult decision to make of either cutting GCSE mathematics provision so that it will fit into two years, or getting a bollocking from Ofsted because they have decided to spread mathematical content for GCSE over three years and therefore cut key stage 3 provision. Both of these have significant drawbacks. I would say the most notable of the former are that it turns GCSE mathematics into little more than an assessment of how well teachers have guessed what will be on the exam paper, while the latter means that the knowledge of mathematics that people who sat this paper (which is 99% of all children in the UK) will be a mile wide but at best an inch deep. Neither outcome is particularly useful for employers or indeed for the people who are sitting the papers. However, it is difficult to see how forcing people to do extra study would solve the problem. It would be more useful to make sure they had learned necessary skills properly in the first place.
- This is grossly compounded by the complete lack of logic in the mathematics curriculum. Key stage 2 does not prepare anyone for key stage 3. Key stage 3 does not build children’s understanding for GCSE. And GCSE on its own is normally not sufficient for A level mathematics. Unless you get a grade eight or nine at GCSE it is almost impossible to access the A level curriculum which is why so many private schools are now completed level 2 qualifications in further mathematics to allow their children to do maths and further maths at a level.
- If an examination does not prepare people for further study, and the teaching of it does not demonstrate ability, and the studying of it does not equipped you with the mathematical skills that you need in the workplace, it begs the obvious question of what is the actual point of it? This is particularly pertinent with the new maths GCSE which attempts to cram all students into grades previously occupied by around 50% of students on the old one. Predictably, this has not been a useful exercise. To try and hide just how badly it has gone, the pass mark for grade four has been dropped more often than a catch when Bangladesh are fielding. Meaning, ineluctably, that they are considerably less rigorous than the old GCSEs and don’t even teach people mathematics as well. With the old GCSE, at least people had a fair idea of where candidates stood in relation to their peers. with the new one it doesn’t even do that effectively, making the botched reforms a complete and utter waste of time.
- This is compounded by the woefully inadequate provision for lifelong learning in mathematics. A member of my extended family has just resat his GCSE maths 25 years after failing aged 16 and to his great delight (and all of ours, I might add) got a 5. He said the hardest thing was not the maths but the fact the only way he could do it was in a class designed for 17 year olds who had failed their GCSEs and simply didn’t want to be there. Is it sensible to roll this system out more? Or would it be better to have proper facilities for lifelong learning available when people realise the value of maths and actually want to do it? I know which one I would choose.
Any reasonable analysis of how to deal with any problems identified in mathematics should therefore start with this identified problem. It will not for one very, very good reason. The current mess was designed with the very, very best of intentions by a group of Conservative activists and politicians around a decade ago. These people are all successful and undoubtedly want us to be successful too. They did it by passing lots of exams, including very hard maths exams, and therefore they believe passionately that passing lots of very hard exams including in maths is the way to be happy and successful. Unfortunately, in their arrogance and limited life experience it does not occur to them that this might be incorrect.
However, it is not just the culture, but the individuals who make a reassessment impossible. Let us consider who this group is and why they do not want to be told that they have failed more imposingly and utterly (although fortunately less lethally) than Vladimir Putin on launching a special military operation.
- Michael Gove. Formerly a long-serving Secretary of State for Education in which he was obsessed with the idea of falling academic standards. This led him to radically overhaul both the curriculum and the GCSE which are the nub of the current problem. He currently serves as Secretary of State for levelling up (or whatever it is called this week) in which role he is one of the comparatively few high-profile ministers within Sunak’s lash-up of a cabinet. He is somebody Sunak cannot offend and certainly cannot afford to lose.
- Dominic Cummings. A failed think tank operator with a string of extraordinary episodes of mindless incompetence behind him, he spent a great deal of time formulating education policy for Michael Gove even though he exhibited not the slightest understanding of education. Although he has of course now left the government (presumably for good given the disgrace in which he departed) he remains a key supporter of Rishi Sunak who was promoted to chancellor largely because of Cummings’ own inept political maneuverings. Whether Johnson fell because of Cummings’ attacks is an open question – I would say, personally, that they were at most a minor factor – the fact is, Sunak cannot afford to antagonise him in case he goes for a similar war of attrition on the much weaker Sunak.
- Nick Gibb. One of the comparatively few ministers to have served in government under Cameron, May, Johnson and Sunak (although notably not Truss) he is a very long serving schools minister with very dogmatic ideas on what is right and proper. The new GCSE system is very much his baby and he would be infuriated by any attempt to tamper with it merely on the grounds that it was a total and utter disaster, which he cannot bring himself to admit. Gibb is obsessed with the idea of falling standards and prescriptive educational methods. He is the one who came up with the idea that the be all and end all of assessment should be good maths and English grades. He then proceeded to complain bitterly but most schools seem to teach only maths and English in years five and six, which is not what he wants. It does not seem to have occurred to him that perhaps if he makes it impossible to teach other subjects and advises people that other subjects are not as important as maths and English anyway, inevitably people will not teach them. Again, Sunak cannot afford to lose him over this issue, so he has carte blanche to protect his little territory.
- Amanda Spielman. Spielman was briefly the director of finance at the Ark Academies chain, but otherwise before 2012 she had no experience whatsoever in education. However, for reasons which remain obscure she was appointed first the chief of Ofqual in which she oversaw the new examination system, and is currently chief of Ofsted in which role she has repeatedly demonstrated she literally does not know what safeguarding is. During this time she has come up with a number of new inspection frameworks all of which are chiefly notable for the fact that they have been repeatedly misdescribed to staff causing a great deal of confusion and unnecessary work while doing nothing whatsoever to further the education of children. Nevertheless, this individual was given an extension on her contract as chief of Ofsted while Sunak ally Gavin Williamson was in charge of education. Admitting therefore that she is utterly incompetent, totally out of her depth and has wrought a terrible disaster through these unfortunate coincidences would also mean admitted that Sunak’s allies are a bunch of clueless muppets.
- Conservative MPs. They have spent the last several years trying to defend these reforms and say how well they are working. It would be utterly shattering to them – and what little is left of their credibility as a government – to admit they have been boosting a total failure. Sunak dare not tell them the truth on this – even assuming he knows it himself, which is in fact improbable as he has never had anything to do with education directly and it is highly unlikely any expert has briefed him on the current situation.
- The Department for Education. They implemented the exam reform and to admit they cocked it all up would be – unfortunate, minister. At a time when their credibility is already at an all-time low, they could hardly admit to overseeing a fiasco.
So what will happen? Well, we will get another pointless initiative drawn up by people who may mean well but are not very intelligent, are profoundly ignorant and don’t know what they’re doing, because they will never admit this trifling detail. Arse covering remains, as ever, the first rule of politics.
And it will probably be popular because most people know even less about education than they do about advanced algebra, and think ‘more maths=good thing’ whereas the real issues around the current system are complex and involved.
And in the meanwhile, mathematics in British schools will continue to be a bit shit.
Don’t you just love politicians?