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Mathematics education

‘A magic circle of circles’ by Benjamin Franklin, from a letter to John Canton, 29 May 1765 (Royal Society MS/597/2/21x)

It is evident from the latest scientific and technological advances that the landscape of 2030 will require people to be highly adept at data analysis and computational thinking (problem-solving using computer science techniques).

Mathematics has been demonstrated to be one of the best ways to improve such skills.

Yet the notion that it is acceptable to be mathematically illiterate is deeply ingrained in British culture. The principle that mathematics should be studied from the start of school until the age of 18 is now accepted by Governments across the world, but is yet to be established in the UK.

Only 13% of young people in the UK study mathematics beyond 16, and it has been estimated that at least one in four economically active adults is functionally innumerate. Too many young people leave compulsory education having not achieved a grade C or above in GCSE mathematics, and too few go on to study mathematics at A level.

The Royal Society would like all young people to have a positive experience of learning mathematics and quantitative skills, understanding its value and importance. We would like them to become confident and fluent mathematicians who are able to apply what they have learned in future studies, employment and daily lives.

However, in order to engage students there needs to be a strong supply of teachers who are well-qualified and well-trained. Moreover, they should be involved in career-long, subject-specific professional development.

Without joined-up, evidence-informed, transparent and well-designed policy, the improvements in mathematics teaching that are needed will not be achieved. It is critical that sufficient time is given to the development of any new curriculum and assessment arrangements and ongoing formative evaluation of developments needs to be in place to steer improvements.

ACME

The Royal Society’s Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) advises the Society on mathematics education policy.

The Committee oversees the Society’s work including commissioning new evidence, analysing existing evidence and providing authoritative and considered advice on high-level, cross-cutting issues in mathematics education and beyond.

The Committee shall oversee the delivery of a programme of activities to be undertaken by the Society that is aligned with the mathematical and computational skills aspects of the Society’s education strategic plan.

The Committee was set up in 2002 by the Royal Society and the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK (JMC) and is backed by mathematics organisations and the wider mathematics education community.

In 2017 the Committee was reformed to have members who are respected and trusted in their own field, have experience of high-level and strategic thinking and delivery, are well networked and with awareness of the education and wider policy landscape. 

The Committee is Chaired by Professor Frank Kelly FRS. See ACME’s current membership

The Royal Society convenes a range of events, including meetings, round tables and conferences for the mathematics education community. These are used as a way of stimulating debate, as well as shaping mathematics education policy advice.

Current priority areas include:

  • Signalling - Working with academia and industry to allow young people to see where science and maths can take them.
  • Technical education - Providing advice on the mathematical and computational skills components of new technical education pathways in England.
  • Data skills - Providing insights on the role of school and colleges in meeting the data science skills needs now and in the future.

Policy areas

The Society’s remit covers all aspects of mathematics education policy. This includes, but is not limited to the policy areas noted below.

Placing science and mathematics at the heart of education Quality, coherence and innovation Inspirational science and mathematics teaching Education in changing times
A well-designed curriculum is essential for the long-term development of maths confidence and competence. The current education system prioritises assessment and accountability. This means that assessment will impact on how mathematics is taught in the classroom. There are not enough specialist teachers of maths in primary, secondary and further education.      Policy reforms should be carefully coordinated, have adequate time (for planning, piloting and evaluation), and be transparent and overseen by experts.         

Our series of briefing papers, Maths Snapshots, set out some of the key issues in mathematics education, identify challenges and opportunities and provide policy advice.

Recent work

  • Teacher development - In 2016, the Society convened an expert panel to develop a report on Professional development learning for all teachers of mathematics. The report sets out principles for teachers, senior leaders and those who commission and provide professional learning. There are also some online tools to support reflection on the development of mathematics-specific knowledge and how to foster mathematics-specific professional learning within schools and colleges. Cambridge Mathematics and the Wellcome Trust supported this project.
  • Assessment – In 2016, the Society published Problem solving in mathematics: realising the vision through better assessment. It considers the assessment of problem solving in public tests and examinations across all key stages of mathematical development and describes the desirable characteristics of questions used to assess problem solving. It also sets out actions for policymakers, awarding organisations and the mathematics community to ensure that improvements in the quantity and quality of problem solving in mathematics tests and assessments are realised over time.
  • Initial teacher education – In 2015, the Society published Beginning teaching: best in class? The report urged for the articulation of a shared standard for the initial teacher education (ITE) of teachers of mathematics. Although the focus was on high-quality ITE, the project also identified some elements that could form part of a comprehensive plan to secure the future supply of teachers of mathematics. A number of activities were undertaken to inform the report, including a review of some elements of the ITE system in four jurisdictions (Germany, Massachusetts, Shanghai and Singapore).
  • Curriculum – In 2014, the Royal Society and the Royal Statistical Society worked together on a project looking at the statistical content and assessment of a selection of A Level qualifications. The aim of the project was to investigate how statistics was embedded within these qualifications and to identify further steps to ensure that students gain statistical literacy as they move into higher education and employment. The report, Embedding Statistics at A level was published in 2015.
  • Curriculum - In 2011, the Society published a report called Mathematical Needs which analysed the mathematical content of a range of university courses and found that there was a marked discrepancy between the number of courses requiring mathematical skills beyond GCSE and the number of people with these skills that the UK is producing.