The Telegraph has one of their typically alarmist stories concerning “more than a fifth of 15 year olds being “low performers” in maths”

Seriously – does not the title jump out at them as problematic? A low performer is a term usually defined in relation to their cohort – there will always be “low” and “high” performers in any group. Suggests that either the writer is a “low performer” in either understanding English, or in basic arithmetic – specifically the idea that not everyone is above average.

OK, so reading it, they are basing it on something a little more concrete – the level deemed “necessary to participate fully in modern society”. I’d be interested in knowing what that is and how it was determined, but at least it sounds reasonably definite.  Though I suspect the main reason the Telegraph latched on is the fact that – horror of horrors – we are 26th out of 64 countries – and dontcha know, old chap, jolly old Blighty should be right at the tippity-top! What are things coming to?

OK, we could do with more kids being able to function mathematically in society. I suspect that actually, a number of those who don’t deliver in test conditions probably can – kids who don’t engage with pen-and-paper artificial problems can often cope rather better with actual money, for example. But yes, fair enough, we want to help kids who aren’t able to manage – for example by not pushing them through a GCSE, but focusing on what will be useful, assessed in an appropriate context.

I see it is being blamed on a “lack of specialist teachers”. Huh?  Sorry, don’t get it. Why does having a post-A-level qualification in maths make you better equipped to teach basic numeracy? Actually, I think it almost certainly doesn’t.  Speaking personally, I find it much harder to teach kids who have major difficulties with things that I found so basic I can’t even remember when I learnt them – I doubt I’m the only maths graduate who feels like that.  That’s not suggesting I’m somehow “above” teaching such kids – of course not – but I don’t think I’m the best person to do it.

You need to know more than the class you are teaching, certainly, but that’s not setting the barrier very high when we’re talking basic skills, is it?  Being able to relate to the kids, encourage them, motivate them etc are going to be miles more important than “specialism”.  If you were worrying about the proportions going on to study maths beyond school, then yes, by all means start talking about lack of specialists. But not here.

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