Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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23/6/17: hurrah for supply teachers!

One of the things I've been doing over the last few weeks is trying to bring myself up to speed with various things going on in UK education.  This includes the pupil premium, ie. that schools with children in disadvantaged circumstances are given additional funds to work with them.  Also there have been some major curriculum reforms, specifically in mathematics, so youngsters are meeting more advanced topics at a younger age, with a stronger sense of problem solving in approach.

As with so many things, there's a bit of a sense of, "Yes, I can see what you're trying to do here, but..."  The principle of pupil premium is great, giving additional support at school to youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds makes a great deal of sense.  But there are at least two problems here.  One is definition, if money is being given for some pupils and not others then there need to be clear criteria for doing so which inevitably around the edges is going to create a sense of unfairness and arbitrariness.  The other is accountability for how the money is spent and demonstrating results arising.  Speaking as someone who knows a little about research methodology in an educational context this is necessarily going to be difficult to do in anything like a rigorous manner, with the danger of creating so much paperwork that you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve in the first place.

Similarly, the reforms in mathematics have much to commend them, problem solving is a great way to work, bringing ownership, social interaction, a sense of the interconnections, of actually using mathematics in a meaningful way rather than simply learning about it.  But again there's a 'but'.  The definition I use of problem solving is a task giving rise to a solution or range of solutions for which the participants have in advance no set method for working.  Which means that a problem for me may not be a problem for you, and a problem for me today is not a problem for me tomorrow because I have done something similar and now do have a means of solving which I previously didn't.

It's in the nature of problem solving that there is often a 'light bulb moment' as everything suddenly makes sense.  Which is where the group interaction can be very valuable, with participants bouncing ideas off each other.  Or, in talking about study skills, one of the things I advocate is putting a problem to one side and coming back to it later rather than just continuing to pound away.  Neither of these things, of course, are possible under examination conditions, and there is the very real possibility that if problems genuinely are problems in the sense defined above then very capable mathematicians simply won't see what's needed in the time available.

But actually, in practice, what are supposed to be problems are not in fact problems in this sense at all.  Many years ago I spent a lot of time preparing for the Cambridge entrance examinations which were of a problem solving format.  Except for one thing - as one worked through past papers it became apparent that many of the 'problems' were very similar, so I ended up learning routines to solve them, therefore undermining the whole point of the test in the first place.  Producing, year after year, new problems in the strong sense of the word is difficult, I do understand that - but if they're not, they cease to be problems.  Forgive me for being somewhat cyncial in reading this news story in which a number of students all at the same school were all getting high marks on MENSA tests.  Not possible to learn how to do such tests?  Hmmm, I need some convincing on that point!

But also in the name of refamiliarising myself with what is going on in the UK I've registered to do some supply - ie day to day - teaching, an excellent way of getting into school in the short term.  Although it's not an easy task, not at all!  First of all, it is the more challenging schools which tend to need supply teachers provided by agencies for two reasons that I can think of.  One is that challenging schools give rise to stress amongst the teachers, stress gives rise to ill health, ill health gives rise to time off, teachers taking time out gives rise to the need for supply teachers.  Which then feeds back into this cycle - a large number of supply teachers, working on a day to day basis without being able to get to know the youngsters and without necessarily being specialists in the lesson they're teaching, however good the supply teachers may be on an individual basis, is going to lower the quality of education.

So it was somewhat disconcerting, recently, to be in a school with 5 hour long periods in a working day to have a fair few of the same youngsters in 2 of the 5 lessons.  However legitimate the reason for teachers being out of the classroom, what message is that sending out to the youngsters?  I would say that when I was working in Universities I did what I could to minimise the amount of time that teachers were out of the classroom because of things I was organising, so going to a lot of trouble in visiting student teachers to do so at times when all that was needed was to protect free periods, and then to have things straight after school and on Saturday mornings.  Excuse me stating the obvious, but for teachers to do their jobs they do actually need to be there in the classroom with their classes!  There are going to be occasions when that really is not possible, but let's do everything we reasonably can to minimise these things.

One of the things I emphasised as an initial teacher trainer was the need to build strong professional relationships with youngsters, to get to know them both in terms of their mathematics and also more generally.  So being a supply teacher is a double whammy - on the one hand the relationship with the regular teacher has been undermined, and on the other there is simply not the time to build up a meaningful working relationship on this basis.

Which, on the positive side, makes supply teaching a great lesson in professionalism.  When students are rude towards or behave badly for one of their regular teachers, it becomes unclear whether this is normal for them generally or whether it is to do with that particular teacher.  But if you're an unknown supply teacher, this personal dimension disappears, if youngsters are rude to me then they're being rude to a representative of the teaching profession not to me personally - which, I suggest, makes things easier to handle.

In supervising classes there are various basics to get right - registers, safety, giving out the work, ensuring youngsters have what they need, that they're not (unduly) bothering each other.  It's a bit of an art, as an unknown quantity, deciding how far to push beyond that.  I'm really pleased that I'm getting to do some of it, but really couldn't keep this up long term.

So, hurrah for supply teachers!  A much needed and under-regarded resource for schools in keeping things afloat.  I'm aware that what I'm about to say conflicts with what I said above about the need for regular teachers to be there, but, to all serving teachers reading this, if the opportunity arises to do day to day supply away from pupils - and ideally also teachers - who know you, take it, it's a really interesting way to find out something about schools and what goes on in them.  And in these days of league tables and rankings, how supply teachers regard schools is a further great piece of information.

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