"About a quarter of secondary school maths classes are already taught by non-maths teachers."
The Guardian, 26 July 2012
Earlier this week the House of Lords Science and Technology committee told of its concern that so few students are currently choosing to study maths past GCSE. The committee recommended compulsory maths lessons for all pupils up to the age of 18.
However according to Guardian contributor Matt Parker, increasing the years of compulsory mathematics was not necessarily the way to improve numeracy standards. Instead, we need "more enthusiastic and skilled maths teachers" especially when we note that "about a quarter of secondary school maths classes are already taught by non-maths teachers."
So are we experiencing a problem of supply not demand? Full Fact decided to investigate.
Mr Parker's article directs readers to a Daily Mail article dated 21 April 2011 by way of a source for the stat.
However what becomes quickly clear upon reading the article is that the Mail does not actually refer to the number of classes taught by non-maths teachers. In fact, the Mail claim that a "quarter of maths teachers don't have a degree in the subject", a subtle but important distinction.
The figures themselves have been taken from the the 2010 School Workforce Census, the results of which were published in a First Statistical Release from the Department for Education and were later analysed as part of a DfE research report.
Looking through these documents we can see that in 2010, 26% of maths teachers had 'no relevant post A-level qualification' in maths which substantiates the Mail's claim, although as the table below shows, there are a number of nuances that this doesn't capture.
Looking at the provisional results for 2011 (released in April 2012), we can see a slight increase in the proportion of maths teachers in secondary schools who have not studied their subject beyond A-Level.
Although we can be satisfied with the Mail's claim, the difference between it and the Guardian's claim means that we need to do a bit more digging to assess whether or not this means that a quarter of classes are being taught by these teachers.
The School Workforce Census does not collect data on the number of classes taught but does report the number of hours taught by teachers with 'no relevant post A-level qualification' in maths which are presented below (data taken from the DfE's more recent release in April 2012).
We can see from these figures that maths teachers that don't hold post A-Level qualifications in their subject tend to spend fewer hours teaching at secondary level than those that do, accounting for 16% of contact time.
Although these statistics are not the same as the number of classes taught by 'non-maths teachers', they do seem to provide a better estimate than using the proportion of teachers as a whole, which means we may want to treat the Guardian's claim with caution.
Are these teachers giving students a raw deal?
Implicit in the Mail and Guardian articles is the suggestion that teachers holding a post A-Level qualification in maths are giving students a better education than those without.
In fact, a teacher's knowledge in the subject area might not directly correlate with the qualifications they hold.
According to the DfE:
"A teacher's qualification was deemed as 'relevant' to the subject taught if the subject of their qualification, reported using the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS), appeared in the list of JACS codes in the Department's mapping."
Unfortunately, we were unable to find any further information on the 'Department's mapping' and so could not be sure which degrees would be included in practice.
For example, it is not clear whether a teacher with a PhD in Economics (but who had studied advanced mathematics as part of their programme) would have a post A-level qualification relevant to the teaching of mathematics.
We contacted the DfE's press office to see if they could clear up the issue and are awaiting a definitive response.
While the Mail is correct in claiming that about a quarter of maths teachers do not have a post A-level qualification in the subject, this is not the same as a quarter of classes, the claim put in the Guardian. The closest we got to this statistic was the number of hours taught by 'non-maths' teachers, a figure which stands at roughly 16%.
Whether or not these figures reveal a 'crisis in maths teaching' is something which you must decide for yourself, but it would be helpful to know what types of 'non-maths' qualifications are held by maths teachers in order to inform this decision. We're hoping that the DfE might be able to fill in that particular gap, and we'll let you know as soon as we know more.