For Those Who Can't Find Anything Better - Teach

Gordan Brown
The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has declared that the UK
… will educate the next generation of world class scientists; and that to do so we will work towards all pupils having access to single subject science teaching - with a guarantee that 90 per cent of all state schools will offer this within the next five years.
But, isn't there a national shortage of Physics teachers? I know it is hard to tell since the government stopped recording Physics teacher shortages a few years ago (they do report a 0.9% vacancy rate in science posts, since schools top up with Biology specialists), but the Centre for Education and Employment Research says in this report that a quarter of secondary schools don't have even one Physics teacher.

But, Gordy has a plan! As our industrial base implodes in the recession, all those engineers will be approached, "guaranteed", to train them as Physics and Maths teachers. "Come here my lovelies, teaching is better than the dole!"

After a decade of promising that all the education problems will be solved (remember "education, education, education"?), nearly all school physics departments, where they exist, are still hugely understaffed, more Physics teachers are still leaving than joining schools each year and perhaps 30% are due to retire in the next decade.

Recruiting a few down at heel industrial workers will not even work as a short term fix for the existing problems. There are better ways to tempt Physics qualified people into teaching than simply waiting for companies to go bust (see How to Recruit a Physics Teacher), but the government and unions will never take the necessary step of letting schools compete freely in the jobs market and offer attractive packages for people with shortage skills.

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Problems Communicating With: Maths Teachers

Now, you might think that there is nothing closer in colleges than Maths and Physics teachers, especially since at A Level they often both teach Mechanics to the same students at the same time. I support the Institute of Physics's suggestion that the shortage of Physics teachers could be eased if trainee teachers could train as joint Physics/Maths teachers, since many physicists are put off teaching by the requirement that they teach Biology as a general science teacher in schools. However, there are problems of incompatible approaches to be overcome, as I have discovered myself, since the Physics department in my college is part of the Maths department (moved from Science to even up team sizes).

Culture Difference

There is a problem of culture that has grown over the years and is transmitted to each new generation of teachers in the training colleges. Physics and Maths teaching have become isolated from each other, with no cross-fertilisation. New styles have been habituated in each subject specialism and they have now become radically different breeds. "Oh, we don't have time for applications!" said one Maths teacher, when questioned.

How can they be so different?

Physics teachers are trained and employed in a science context, with a focus on conceptual understanding, measurement, modelling and context. Mathematics teachers have become divorced from applications and have turned inwards. This is not necessarily undesirable, but many of their students (most, if you look at the Maths-Mechanics classes) study Physics and intend to enter Physics related degree courses. The Maths Departments' focus on narrowly defined problems leading to routine processing for a solution encourages students to rely on learnt techniques. This works fine for standard problems, but it is a distraction when dealing with unfamiliar problem types, which require a grasp of fundamental principles.

Student Coping Mechanism

Many students cope well with the differences, but a few always respond to difficulties badly: home study consists of learning the problem solving technique recipes and cramming for tests. When the unlearned concepts become a cause for declining scores, the response is to do more of the same. The next step is to request extra past papers to hone their technique, but this can lead to frustration as scores fail to improve and hour after hour are consumed chasing the wrong target. It is regular chore telling parents during meetings that their offspring are working terribly hard, but at the wrong things.

Now this is by no means the sole fault of Maths teachers, since this style of learning works well for GCSE Physics, but it is unfortunate that it also works well for A Level Maths. Many have never needed to get to grips with Physics concepts.

Incoherent Mathematics

The strangest difference I have come upon is that algebra is carried out using a bastardised version of quantity calculus. Quantity calculus, or quantity algebra, is the coherent system for dealing with physical quantities mathematically, as specified in the SI. Unit symbols are treated as mathematical entities, and the inclusion of units in workings is invaluable for helping students appreciate the physical basis of calculation, as well as helping them to spot errors when unexpected units appear with the solution.

My Maths teacher colleagues follow the exam board guidance, and claim to use SI units, but the units are all they use. A maths problem will specify, for example, that 'v = velocity in m/s', so the formula presented is unit specific, while in Physics the equations are valid for any coherent set of units, i.e. 'v = velocity'. The weight of a 300 kg mass is labelled as '300g' in a Maths problem, but with g defined as an acceleration, this makes the weight a simple multiple of an acceleration, not a force.

In Physics lessons, I expect my students to write '300 kg x g' to preserve the unit dimension. My colleagues told me that units were omitted because they caused confusion, with grams mixed up with the gravitational g, etc. Of course, there is no actual indication that such mix-ups actually happen. An additional inconsistency, Maths teachers are happy to write '1 mi = 1.6 km', without accepting that this means 'mi/km = 1.6', as this would give the units meaning outside the narrow unit specifications of variables.

Separated By A Shared Language

Maths and Physics teachers, although ostensibly sharing a love of the quantitative, speak different languages. Physics requires an understanding of principles and the importance of physical quantities, while mathematics allows the flourishing of technique over understanding, and introduces a hodge-podge of half-correct ideas that do not even give lip service to the needs of future scientists and engineers to use standard, coherent notation and techniques.

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School Does Anything for Cash

Our local primary school has taken a big loan to fund a new staffroom without knowing where the money was going to come from, and it is now struggling to make ends meet.

As a Voluntary Aided school the governors are responsible for paying ten percent of any capital expense, but decided to apply for a grant from the local authority first. The loan to cover the remainder needs servicing, and parents are being squeezed.

Prospective parents are invited to fill in direct debit forms along with the applications. Existing parents are charged for lessons for which, at most, voluntary contributions could be asked. Entry to see the Christmas plays was by bought ticket only. Children were even told, illegally, that they would be withdrawn from swimming lessons if parents didn't ante up.

As the headteacher told me in a private communication, the shool was concerned that if parents knew that payments were entirely voluntary, many wouldn't pay up.

Most tastelessly, though, the poorest families have had five pound vouchers dangled in front of them, theirs if they apply for free school meals. The free meals don't have to be eaten, the newsletter goes on, just claimed. The school can then claim an extra 70 pounds from the government's 'School Standards Grant (Personalisation)', which normally pays just five pounds per child at the school.

So the school knows there are some families on social security who haven't registered for whatever reason. But to try to bribe such people, with just five pounds when they have been asked to pay for a free state eduuation, is crass.

The school must think parents can be bought cheaply. I know running a school is costly, but the schools are there as a service to parents and children. Families should not be seen simply as funding units.

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New Tory Education Policies

Michael Gove, Conservative Party education policy wonk, has an alternative to the government's feeble response to the specialist teacher shortage.

Over the last decade, Labour has solved the Physics teacher shortage by making Biology teachers teach Physics, then declaring that there isn't a science teacher recruitment problem. (see Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics) The acute shortage of maths trained teachers in primary schools is magically reversed by paying the more numerate teachers to attend a two or three week course in their summer break, returning to their schools as 'maths qualified'. Brilliant, but at the same time pathetic.

The long term answer, or course, is to allow some freedom in the market, and pay more for the teacher who has the shortage skills. Gove suggests that head teachers should be allowed to do just that, although the unions have a strong interest in preventing any local pay agreements - national pay bargaining is their most valued power. Opening more schools that can independently set pay rates could work, and Gove seems to be suggesting that, but the new City Academies have been free of council control for years, and I don't see evidence that pay is varied to ease recruitment difficulties.

It will be hard encouraging Heads to make use of such a power though, as many don't see specialisms as important. Why would a primary head teacher, of a school with respectable maths test results, want to spend more to recruit a maths specialist? Specialists have never been part of the primary scene, and it would be seen as an insult to the existing generalist teachers, especially if paid differently.

Independent schools, however, do take specialist skills seriously, and many vary pay rates — if government really wants to close the education gap between independent and state schools, then they must bite the pay bullet.

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Vorderman to Lead Inquiry into Maths Teaching

Carol Vorderman has been appointed by Conservative Party leader David Cameron to lead an inquiry into the state of Mathematics teaching. Yup, that's right, the TV presenter with a knack for mental arithmetic is going to be passing judgment on how children do maths in school and on examination standards in England.

Why does Dave think Vorderman is qualified for the job? She famously only managed a third class degree in engineering, she has shown her disdain for independent research by publicly joining the anti-MMR lobby and is a fully paid-up snake oil salesman flogging worthless detox diets and and dodgy financial products.

She said:
Maths is critically important to the future of this country but Britain is falling behind the best performing countries.
But the TIMMS study has England high up the international league table and climbing. Given her history, though, we can expect Vorderman to have a disdain for the normal rules for evidence.

Quite what influence her report will have when it is finally published, who can tell. But, if Jamie Oliver's foray into education is anything to go by, one can only hope it will be quietly put on the back burner.

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