Elizabeth Truss on support for maths and science teaching

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss outlines the case for better maths and science teaching, and new policies designed to help schools.

Maths pupil

Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Imperial is one of our most successful universities.

You’re ranked at the top of any number of global university tables: third in the world for medicine, top 10 for engineering and technology, a top 20 business school - and in the UK, top for physics and third for maths.

Not to mention 15 Nobel laureates and 2 Fields medallists.

And you’re at the head of a wider UK movement. We’re one of the top countries for research citations in subjects like physics or maths. We have one of the strongest science research communities in the world.

And we know this is vital for our national future.

Maths is becoming ever-more important to the economy.

More and more sectors rely on technology - and more companies require people with advanced analytical and research skills if they’re going to compete.

So we need a strong education system.

Because tomorrow’s world relies on today’s pupils.

Importance of maths

But how many of the next generation realise that?

Thanks to our EBacc, the numbers entering the sciences at GCSE are at a record high - and the gap between girls and boys is the narrowest on record.

But for all that progress, concerns remain.

The pipeline is broken at 16. We have too few pupils going on to A levels in maths and sciences.

Compare us to most advanced countries. In places like Japan, 85% of pupils take advanced maths, equivalent to at least AS level, in upper secondary. In Taiwan, the figure is 70%.

In England, it’s just 13%.

Not only that - but pupils from less affluent backgrounds are missing out.

Pupils at independent schools are almost twice as likely to study maths or physics A level than those at comprehensive schools - and fully 3 times as likely to do further maths.

And there’s a problem with girls, too.

Across the country, fully half of all co-ed schools have not a single girl going on to do A level physics.

Only 2% of girls’ A level entries are in physics.

Only 8% are in maths.

Acceptance of mediocrity

So we have a problem after age 16 - a broken pipeline.

Why is this?

Too often, maths and science are misunderstood.

They’re seen as ‘hard’ - as subjects best kept for the whizz-kids - rather than subjects that, with careful layering of knowledge and gradual, steady application - can be mastered and manipulated by anyone.

They’re seen as niche - rather than the basis of any number of careers - and ever-more so in the modern economy.

And they’re seen as male - rather than equally open to all.

The Department for Education ran a few focus groups of teenagers in Leeds, York and London a month ago.

These bright and ambitious young people wanted success, to know that a career would be interesting, enjoyable and well rewarded.

Their views on maths and physics were as follows:

  • male
  • equations
  • boring
  • formula
  • irrelevant

That sums up the image problem these subjects face.

Why is this? Why hasn’t this image been challenged?

Well, look at a recent Ofsted report, into science teaching.

It found some great examples of dedicated teachers - but also found some schools where - I quote:

Not enough subject leaders analyse why pupils…either continue or stop studying science after 16. Uninspiring teaching was one reason pupils gave…another was not seeing the purpose of what they were studying.

Leaders in schools…accepted the stereotypical choices that students made without asking questions.

And listen to the respected Institute of Physics. Their research into subject choice found that often, the difference between pupils falling in or out of love with physics is the school’s attitude. They said:

In general, we find a woeful picture, with the majority of schools failing to counter whatever external factors drive school children to make such gendered choices.

So too often we allow pupils to lose interest, rather than stick with the course.

We allow them to drift, rather than decide.

We let them drop maths and science.

We can’t afford this. And other countries have much higher levels of participation and similar performance by girls and boys. So we know it’s possible.

So what do we need to do?

I think there are 3 things.

First, information. The value and potential of these subjects has to be more widely appreciated.

Second, inspiration. We need great teachers - encouraging and enthusing young people to reach their potential - challenging the stereotypes about maths and science.

Third, evidence. We need data - to show which schools are doing well, and where there’s high take-up - so that others can learn from them.

Your life

Last Wednesday I launched the Your Life campaign, with the Chancellor, leading businesses and institutions.

Edwina Dunn, a successful businesswoman, is chairing it, leading a group of innovators in technology, engineering, finance and numerous other fields.

She wants to see a 50% increase in the numbers of students taking physics and maths A level within 3 years.

The campaign treats young people as masters of their own destiny. It targets students as decision makers about their own career.

It is unashamedly aspirational: telling them the earnings potential and career success that maths and science can give.

Maths is the only A level proven to increase earnings in later life - by an average of 10% - and the campaign hammers that message home.

And just as important, it doesn’t treat maths and science as subjects only necessary to go into scientific careers.

It pitches them as essential for success in any number of walks of life - because maths is turning our economy inside-out, and the chances of young people earning and living well are higher, if they have a maths qualification.

And we’ve got a fantastic board to prove it.

Like Edwina, who pioneered Tesco’s Clubcard. Sarah Wood, who runs a viral marketing agency. Eben Upton, who invented Raspberry Pi, a new type of computer, and jets between Sheffield and Silicon Valley.

Or engineers like Roma Agrawal, who helped build the Shard. Or the 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, who sold an app to Yahoo! - who unfortunately couldn’t attend the launch because he was, in fact, sitting his A levels.

And that breadth is equalled in the organisations supporting the campaign.

From Airbus to Facebook, L’Oreal to Lloyds - and including Imperial College - it’s an impressive list of household names from every sector; and a sign of the variety of employers desperately seeking better maths and science.

It’s a fantastic group of committed entrepreneurs, leaders and organisations.

And they’re aiming for a massive change in attitudes to maths and science.

Teaching is vital

The second change we need - is inspiration.

Teachers are vital for getting students excited about their subjects, and encouraging them to take it up.

As Ofsted note, the best teachers link the abstract and the concrete, and are able to explain why the subject is important.

These teachers know the importance of practical work in inspiring students - how it can help students understand the content and develop their skills.

And all the evidence suggests teachers who are confident - who have their head’s support and proper time allocated in the timetable to science - will use practicals to engage pupils.

Of course, that gives heads a big role. They need to attract and develop teaching talent.

That’s why we gave schools more flexibility to pay more to physics and maths teachers, and I’d like to see more schools taking advantage.

And we’ve reflected the special need for these subjects, by putting our money where our mouth is. The highest bursaries for teacher training are now in maths, chemistry and physics.

Last week, we announced a further programme: maths and physics chairs. These are postgraduate specialists who will go into schools with particularly low progression rates from GCSE to A level maths and science. The scheme is sponsored by top firms - including Barclays, Samsung and GlaxoSmithKline. These companies will contribute to the £40,000 salary over a 3-year term.

These chairs will inject enthusiasm and expertise into the classroom, running master classes, online lesson demonstrations, linking the classroom to business and universities. The first will arrive in schools this autumn, and we eventually expect to expand to hundreds across the country.

We’ve created maths hubs, too. We’re spending £11 million on these centres. They will drive up the quality of teaching, working with schools to share the best ideas for maths teaching - learning from the top-performing places like Singapore or Shanghai.

They will link to the science learning centres and programmes like the Stimulating Physics Network - which offer support, materials and training for specific subjects.

And I am delighted today to announce that we’re extending funding for the Stimulating Physics Network - giving the Institute of Physics £4.3 million over 2 years to provide support to schools to increase progression to A level physics - especially for girls.

And of course, all of this is in a context of a changed curriculum, where science subjects are more rigorous and rewarding.

So we’re doing all we can to help teachers inspire their pupils.

But we want to go further.

New transparency measure

We need evidence, too.

So today, I can announce that at the end of June, we will publish new data on maths and physics at A Level.

It will show what proportion of boys and girls studying A levels are taking maths, further maths or physics at each school.

The 2012 to 2013 data will be published in June 2014 as part of the data release on education, training and employment among 16- to 18-year-olds. Thereafter the statistics will be published every year at the same time as the secondary school and college performance tables, which will be released in January 2015.

That will mean everyone is able to identify the science deserts - those areas of the country with low or no science teaching to an advanced level. Across the country, almost 1 in 5 (17%) schools have no pupils doing physics.

We’ve seen, since the introduction of the EBacc, record numbers of pupils taking triple science GCSE. This new transparency measure will help carry that through to A level.

And that means if you’re a parent, councillor or local business looking for skilled staff - you’ll now be able to see who’s coming out of schools with those qualifications.

And it will be clear - if you’ve only got 5% of your pupils doing A level maths - what that means for the local economy - and for the hopes and dreams of your parents and students - and where we need to act.


So if we inform, inspire and use that evidence - we can get there.

Imagine what it could look like with informed students, more teachers and better input from universities and businesses.

We won’t be talking about too few girls, or too few students from low income backgrounds, or a broken pipeline.

We’ll be talking about what our young people - all of them - have achieved.

About their inventions - businesses - successes - even Nobel prizes and Fields medals.

This university is one of the best centres in the world for science.

Get it right, and that excellence - that world-beating education - will be there for the taking - for all our students.

Thank you.

Published 14 May 2014