Response to Simon Jenkins

I have read his paper with mixed feelings:

Charge the maths lobby with the uselessness of its subject and the answer is a mix of chauvinism and vacuity. Maths must be taught if we are to beat the Chinese (at maths) (Only those arguments that can be linked to immediate pragmatism are regarded as worth voicing!). Or it falls back on primitivism, that maths “trains the mind”. So does learning the Qur’an and reciting Latin verbs. (So what? I would adore an education system that offers the opportunity of learning such things, provided that it is not compulsory. When I was 15 years old I was annoyed by the idea that I – as a child of the 20th century- had to miss the opportunity of learning Latin, so I took private Latin lessons. I was lucky enough that I was in the German highschool such that the wife of one of our teachers could teach me Latin. Later I did the same for Ancient Greek, too.)

Meanwhile, the curriculum systematically denies pupils what might be of real use to them and society. There is no “need” for more mathematicians. The nation needs, and therefore pays most for, more executives, accountants, salesmen, designers and creative thinkers. (Who has the priviledge to decide what the society needs? After all, those who have this priviledge are able to create these needs in the first place. So, it is a tautology.)

At the very least, today’s pupils should go into the world with a knowledge of their history and geography, their environment, the working of their bodies, the upbringing of children, law, money, the economy and civil rights.

This is in addition to self-confidence, emotional intelligence and the culture of the English imagination. (As if these attributes can be acquired in a way that is isolated from learning mathematics!) All are crowded out by a political obsession with maths.

The reason is depressingly clear. Maths is merely an easy subject to measure, nationally and internationally. It thus facilitates the bureaucratic craving for targetry and control. (With this part I agree. In fact, this is closedly connected with my above comment on “determining the needs”. Quantitative measurements and statistics are important to give the decisions an objective aura and disguise their unavoidably ideological nature. For this purpose, one has to make sure to raise statistics-literate generations, which is not what mathematics education means to me.)

Altogether the article has brought to my mind the verses from “Murder in the Cathedral” (T.S. Eliott):

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.


Simon Jenkins: Our fixation with maths doesn’t add up

in The Guardian, Thursday 10 March 2016. A random paragraph:

There is nothing, except religion, as conservative as a school curriculum. It is drenched in archaic prejudice and vested interest. When the medieval church banned geography as an offence against the Bible, what had been the queen of the sciences never recovered. Instead Latin dominated the “grammar” curriculum into the 20th century, to the expense of all science. Today maths is the new Latin.

Read the full article. Refutation anyone?


A. Borovik: Sublime Symmetry: Mathematics and Art

A new paper in The De Morgan Gazette:

Form the Introduction:

This paper is a text of a talk at the opening of the Exhibition Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics behind De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs  in the delighful Towneley Hall  Burnley, on 5 March 2016. The Exhibition is the first one in Sublime Symmetry Tour  organised by The De Morgan Foundation.

I use this opportunity to bring Sublime Symmetry Tour to the attention of the British mathematics community, and list Tour venues:

06 March to 05 June 2016 at Towneley Hall, Burnley
11 June to 04 September 2016 at Cannon Hall, Barnsley
10 September to 04 December 2016 at Torre Abbey, Torbay
10 December 2016 to 04 March 2017 at the New Walk Gallery, Leicester
12 March to 03 September 2017 at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William De Morgan, Peacock Dish. The De Morgan Foundation

William De Morgan, Peacock Dish. The De Morgan Foundation.

UK Mathematics Trust: Teacher Meetings

These one-day professional development seminars, held at various venues throughout the United Kingdom, offer maths teachers the opportunity to discover inspirational ideas for motivating pupils across the ability range. They provide a number of ways in which teachers can continue their professional development and all delegates will benefit from:

  • Developing ideas for making maths fun and engaging for students;
  • An interesting day out of the classroom with ideas for creating an engaging and motivational learning environment;
  • Receiving a delegate pack filled with resources to take back to the classroom, along with a CPD attendance certificate;
  • Meeting other mathematics professionals from their region and beyond, with the time to discuss and exchange best practice.

The dates and venues of the 2016 teacher meetings (with links to agendas/speakers) are as follows:

  • 20 May:  Edinburgh University of Edinburgh
  • 10 June: Belfast W5 Odyssey, Belfast
  • 21 June: Greenwich Greenwich Campus, University of Greenwich
  • 24 June: Cardiff Cardiff City Hall
  • 27 June: Cambridge Centre for Mathematical Studies, Cambridge
  • 1 July:    Leeds University of Leeds

Would you like to book a place? Click here for the booking form.

Computers in Mathematics Education: Conference Invitation

Sixth Central- and Eastern European Conference on Computer Algebra-  and Dynamic Geometry Systems in Mathematics Education

7-10 September, 2016 Targu Mures, Romania

After a successful conferences held at Pécs, Hungary (2007), Hagenberg, Austria (2009), Hluboká nad Vltavou, Czech Republic (2010), Novi Sad (2012) and Halle(2014) we are delighted to announce that the CADGME conference continues. The team from Department of Mathematics-Informatics at Faculty of Technical and Human Sciences, Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania in cooperation with the team from Faculty of Engineering, University Petru Maior has volunteered to host the conference in 2016 in the city of Bolyai’s the beautiful Targu Mures/Marosvásárhely/Neumarkt, Romania. As for the last CADGME conferences we want to create a forum for Central- and Eastern- European colleagues, and for all interested academics from around the globe to exchange ideas and nurture collaboration. We hope that you will join us in Targu Mures on 07- 10 September 2016.
Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania

Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania

The Conference website:

New Report: The beginnings of school led teacher education

I have recently been involved in a five year project looking at the ascendance of school-led teacher training in England. We hope that you find our report interesting and we would be greatly appreciative if it were possible to make it available to your various networks of colleagues.

Yours sincerely

Tony Brown

The beginnings of school-led teacher training: New challenges for university teacher education.

The School Direct Research Project undertaken by a team of academics from Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, concludes five years of research into the effects of school–led training on the rationale and composition of university teacher education in England and considers the impacts of recent changes on the teaching profession.

In England, atypically perhaps among other countries, most teacher education has moved into schools with universities playing a more peripheral role. This is ostensibly a lower cost approach to teacher education that may appeal to other countries. The point of our report, however, is not to invite international readers to try this at home. The more general issue relates to how teacher education knowledge is conceptualised, how this shapes practice but also questioning how and why university contributions have been conceptualised in the way that they have been, and if they deliver on their promise. The report asks whether the choice between the benefits of school-based training and of university led teacher education is so obvious as it may first appear. By taking an atypical perspective on more familiar models the rationale for these models might be seen differently, whilst raising the more generic issue of how learning to teach happens differently across university and school locations.

Teacher education in England now comprises a vocational employment-based model of training located primarily in schools. This approach is in sharp contrast to models followed in the “European Teacher Education Area” where student teachers typically spend five years in university, followed by up to two years on school placement. “Almost all countries introduced reforms in initial primary teacher education after the initiation of the Bologna Process (1999)” (ENTEP), similarly for secondary subject teachers, and half of pre-primary sectors of education. These two approaches reveal radically different conceptions of how teacher quality might be improved in the name of international competitiveness. In the English model, teacher education has been wrested from its traditional home within the academy where universities play a support role to what has become “school-led” training where government funds for teacher education have been diverted to schools. Student teachers often spend as little as thirty days in university during a one-year postgraduate “training” course. Teacher professional identity has been referenced to skill development within this frame and the wider assessment culture. The wider European model, meanwhile, similarly claims to be concerned with “raising teacher quality … in a way which responds to the challenges of lifelong learning in a knowledge based society” (ENTEP). The model is characterised by reinvigorated faith in academic study and promotion of individual teachers, where a pedagogical dimension in included from the outset of undergraduate studies, but with relatively brief periods spent in school.

The report, written by Tony Brown, Harriet Rowley and Kim Smith, shows how the reconfiguration of how training in the English model is distributed between university and school sites consequential to School Direct altering how the content and composition of that training is decided. Most notably, local market conditions rather than educational principles can determine the design of training models and how the composition of teacher preparation is shared across sites. This contingency means that the content and structure of School Direct courses varies greatly between different partnership arrangements across the country, leading to greater fragmentation within the system as a whole. Thus, there is not only increased diversification in terms of type of training route but also diversification of experience within each route. School Direct has also altered the balance of power between universities and schools, and in turn, their relationship with one another. The ascendance of school-led training has changed how the responsibilities of each party are decided and impacted on how the categories ‘teacher educator’, ‘teacher’ and ‘trainee’ are defined. In particular, the function of ‘teacher educator’ has been split across the university and school sites, displacing traditional notions of what it means to be a ‘teacher’ and ‘teacher educator’. The flux is leading to uncertainty across role boundaries and, in turn, changes in practice. Furthermore, as those in different locations negotiate territorial boundaries, this can activate anxiety and tension within the workforce. The particular impact on different school subjects as a result of these contrasting approaches relates to the way in which conceptions of the subjects derive from where understandings of them are developed, whether in schools or in universities.

For those training in schools little more may be done than enable teachers to work through commercial schemes as implementers of curriculum, as opposed our European neighbours following university intensive courses where relatively low attention is given to the practical school aspects during the university element. Lower cost school-based teacher education may yet appeal to other countries in building and influencing the practice of their teaching forces. But four questions immediately present themselves: Does School Direct provide a viable alternative to university based teacher education? Does it alter the composition of the pedagogical subject knowledge it seeks to support? Is it low cost, or at least good value for money (National Audit Office, 2016)? How will it eventually impact on England’s reputation in international comparative testing?

The report can be found at:

Click to access schooldirect.pdf

Other project publications:

Brown, T, Rowley, H & Smith, K (2015) Sliding subject positions: knowledge and teacher educators. British Educational Research Journal
Brown, T., Rowley, H. & Smith, K. (2014). Rethinking research in teacher education. British Journal of Educational Studies. 62 (3), 281-296.

Higher Education and Human Capital

A few weeks ago I attended a UCU conference in London on the future of UK higher education which had one or two interesting speakers.  The most interesting for me was Andrew McGettigan, an academic who studies the economics and ideology of government education policy in depth.  He explained that because the current system of financing universities is unsustainable (70% of the student loan book will never be repaid) government ideologues are planning to introduce differential support to universities  for educating students in different subjects, which will depend on the expected  “added value” to the student of their degree, as measured  by increase in expected lifetime earnings.  Quite how this would be determined without the projections being hopelessly out of date is not apparent.  The idea would be to encourage the production by universities of “valuable” citizens who will be in a position to repay the cost of their education, since it is expected that universities will naturally try to maximise their income.  So on this model we can expect a big expansion of law, medicine, and accountancy departments and the virtual disappearance of nursing, history, and the arts.  I suspect pure mathematics might not do too well either.
I found a very interesting paper of McGettigan in which he explains the background to this part of his talk in detail.
See also the remarkable table at Fig. 12, frame 19, of the slides from McGettigan’s UCU talk which details the expected lifetime financial benefit of a first degree in various subjects. I reproduce the table here:
Individual net Lifetime benefit of undegraduate degrees

Individual net Lifetime benefit of undegraduate degrees