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Mathematics

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Skills – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 18th March 2004.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 11:30 am, 18th March 2004

What steps his Department is taking to help improve the teaching of mathematics in schools following the publication of the report by Professor Adrian Smith.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I very much welcome Professor Smith's far-reaching report, "Making Mathematics Count". It is vital that we get mathematics right. I am therefore considering the report's recommendations carefully.

Meanwhile, in schools, the primary and key stage 3 strategies continue to raise standards in maths through supporting continual improvement in teaching and learning practice. Similarly, post-16, we are developing a strategy for supporting mathematics teaching in further education and sixth form colleges. Since teacher training bursaries and golden hellos were introduced in September 2000, recruitment to courses of initial teacher training for teachers of maths in England has risen by 50 per cent.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work in promoting mathematics, and on the Government's general record in that regard. This is the first Government to take seriously the problems that Britain has with mathematics. The Moser report, which concluded that 50 per cent. of the population do not know what 50 per cent. means, was a wake-up call. My right hon. Friend rightly recommends the Smith report, which deals with post-14 education, but the real problems start in primary, and especially infant, education. Will he look much more closely at teaching methods, and make prescriptive decisions about what methods should be used in primary education to ensure that young children learn mathematics properly, long before they get to 14?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

On the point about primaries, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a general welcome in primary schools for the numeracy strategy and the support that it gives. People have been very positive about it and, indeed, the welcome has been greater than was the case with the literacy strategy. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend says, and a careful reading of Professor Smith's report shows that it is quite a serious critique of the whole process of how mathematics is dealt with in our country. That requires radical solutions, and we will look at matters such as teaching methods, in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Photo of Mr Archie Norman Mr Archie Norman Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

Does the Secretary of State accept that the decline in participation in mathematics at A-level in our secondary schools, especially among female students, has serious implications for the future of our engineering, science and technology industries? Does he accept that there is an acute need to look again at the A-level mathematics syllabus, to make it more accessible and appealing to students and thus ensure that participation increases? That is absolutely vital for the future of British industry.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I completely agree with every word of that question. I commend Professor Smith's report to the hon. Gentleman, as it goes into detail on exactly those issues and on the way in which the AS and A2 qualifications have worked. The report makes serious recommendations about the curriculum, and we have begun discussing them already with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to establish how we can take them forward. However, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: significant changes are needed in the post-14 curriculum, and we also need the support in primaries and key stage 3 to which my hon. Friend Mr. Hopkins referred.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

I, too, congratulate the Government on their promotion of mathematics teaching. However, if we are to be successful, should we not encourage the learned societies—such as the Institute of Mathematics, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society—to get involved and promote maths teaching much more vigorously than they have done so far?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is completely right. We have discussed with the societies that he mentions how they can engage themselves more. One recommendation in Professor Smith's report is that we should create a structure that will allow us to engage all those organisations much more directly and explicitly in the teaching of mathematics in our education system. In that regard, there have been some competing interests, if I may put it like that, between different organisations. I am therefore glad to say that everyone is prepared to come together in the interests of achieving a co-ordinated and effective approach. That will make a difference, as my hon. Friend suggests.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State will be aware of some of the funding problems faced by Guildford schools over the past couple of years. Head teachers whom I met last night were very pleased to hear that they were going to get additional funding to help with recruitment and retention of mathematics teachers. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the increase in funding per pupil will be for each and every pupil, and not averaged out and given to areas of particular need? That will help our head teachers and governors to continue their very good work.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I appreciate the hon. Lady's support for my right hon. Friend's Budget yesterday and the important announcements that we will debate later today. I confirm that the increases will go right across the country, although the distribution system reflects need in all ways, as indeed it should.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to get quality teaching into schools and that we need some means of giving incentives to mathematics graduates who have taken highly paid jobs in industry or the City to go into teaching, even for a relatively short period?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

I very much agree. That point was made to me forcefully in my hon. Friend's constituency a couple of months ago at the Isaac Newton centre, an outstanding centre of mathematics education and research, which has developed good support for maths teaching in schools. We do need incentives of that type. That is one of the points that Professor Smith makes, and we are considering it. We also need systems, which we have in fact established, of recruiting people from industry directly into teaching. There have been some positive schemes already which have exactly the effect that my hon. Friend described.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Shadow Minister (Health)

Professor Smith said in his report that the current maths curriculum did not stretch the top 10 per cent. of pupils while the bottom 30 per cent. were predestined to fail. He also referred to

"considerable concerns regarding mathematics provision and the delivery of mathematics teaching within and relating to the Government's Key Skills agenda."

When will we have a curriculum and teaching that meet the needs of all our young people?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills

That is precisely the process that we are going towards. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, I commend Professor Smith's report because it is a serious critique of what is happening, not least on the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made about not meeting the needs of pupils at the top and the bottom. That is why we have set up a process of curriculum change, including the Tomlinson proposals for the whole 14 to 19 curriculum, which will address precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. He might be courteous enough to acknowledge that the Government are taking the issue far more seriously than our predecessors did and really trying to get it right.