Maths in UK schools is in a dire state say experts, pointing in particular to the skills gap that has opened up between our own young people and students coming into our schools and universities from the Far East who do possess the skills in abundance.
So what to do? One newspaper has launched a 'Maths Manifesto', whereby an eight point charter to set the country back onto its numerate feet is proposed. It is designed to create a more numerate schools society, whereby everyone has an improved understanding of mathematics. However, this manifesto, laudable as it is, focuses on breadth rather than excellence.
There are two fundamental issues that perhaps should also be addressed: how do we make Maths credible among the young teenagers of today'? How do we ensure that we stretch the very able in an environment that challenges and celebrates their abilities?
When GB Sport was awarded the Olympics, everyone spoke of legacies. Training and development programmes sprang up. Talent identification programmes were created. The result? A record haul of medals. Why? Because Team GB created role models. Yes, they have the most iconic sporting event in the world to aspire to. But we can still take lessons from them, and actually work alongside them and other centres of excellence to achieve our goals in maths.
I have been fortunate enough to have spent a good deal of my time as a teacher in educational establishments that celebrate excellence. As a Housemaster at a top HMC School in Somerset, it was not difficult to see how future Olympians were being prepared for success. A sporting academy of excellence breeds further excellence. Pupils cannot rest on their laurels. In order to be the fastest strongest and highest, they had to work the hardest.
Another fine institution was in Wales - breeding ground of 46 full internationals in rugby. No resting on ones laurels there for anyone who wanted to succeed. However, what was interesting about both schools was the level of respect for other high achievers - an acknowledgement of the necessary sacrifices needed to succeed. Thus, side by side, stood the finest fencers, swimmers, rugby players alongside musicians, dancers and actors. All appreciating the skills and innate abilities of the others.
Why not also acknowledge mathematicians? Why not create Maths 'Academies of excellence' within our finest schools - where the most able mathematicians can aspire to go. Where the best possible teachers can gather to push the boundaries of the subject and the pupils. Where it can be acknowledged that, side by side with other high achievers, these young protégés can excel, thrive and take the subject forwards. They would gain respect and credibility from others around.
At the present time it is most likely that such centres of excellence would, to start with, be set up in the best independent schools. But means tested scholarships are very likely to be offered by those schools participating. The subject will gain in credibility because others will see just how fantastic a subject it is, and the likes of Professor Brian Cox, an inspiration to young Physicists today, would soon be replicated in the mathematics world. The best resources would be pooled. Universities could link in with the programmes. Quality would be assured.
But let's not leave it just to the Independent sector to take the lead. In the 93% of today's pupils that are schooled in the maintained sector, let's give them their own Mathematics academies within their best schools. Places where the best Mathematics talent can be nurtured, stretched and developed. And equally importantly, it can start to be seen to be what it is - exciting, stimulating and fun.
To those who rightly identify Mathematics as a critically important focal point for schools' improvement, I urge you to consider not just how we broaden the level of understanding in our schools, but how we stretch and challenge the very best, by doing so in an environment where excellence seeps through every pore of expectation.
Let us support the creation of 'Mathematics Academies' inside the very best schools, where those who possess the ability will not be barred because of either a lack of funds or a postcode lottery, and where they will be celebrated by all. Where the high profile mathematicians will pledge to visit and support, thus creating an aspirational environment. If it can be done in sport, it can also be in mathematics. It just needs to bring the very best together.
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