• From the Director

Professional Development – the key to making teaching ‘a career worth having’

An article from our Director, Charlie Stripp

  • Published: 15/01/2020

At the start of the New Year I wanted to reflect on the importance of teachers and the contribution the NCETM is making to improve the professional development opportunities for teachers of maths (at both primary and secondary school level) and so support long-term improvement in mathematics education in England.

Teaching is a hugely important and demanding profession that requires high levels of specialist subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogical expertise, alongside high levels of commitment and resilience. Its demands and social importance certainly rank it alongside other expert professions – medicine, law, engineering, accountancy, etc. – all of which have well-defined, mandatory, career-long professional development systems. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to these other professions, the professional development structure for teaching, particularly the development and accreditation of subject-specific teaching expertise, has been virtually non-existent. I’m convinced that this factor contributes significantly to the fact that teaching is seen by many as a less attractive career.

The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework[1] is helpful in recognising the importance of subject-specific professional development (PD). Its ‘Leadership and management’ section includes:

‘leaders focus on improving staff’s subject, pedagogical and pedagogical content knowledge to enhance the teaching of the curriculum and the appropriate use of assessment. The practice and subject knowledge of staff are built up and improve over time’.

This means there is now an expectation from Ofsted that school leaders should ensure that teachers’ practice and subject knowledge are continually developed. There is strong research evidence that a school leadership focus on teacher learning and development has a powerful effect on student learning[2].

Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has written that: ‘Attracting, developing and retaining the best teachers is the greatest challenge education systems have to face’[3]. I’d argue that developing teachers is a key factor in attracting and retaining them, so the availability of high-quality PD is vital. I’d like to see us move to a position where PD is both a right and a responsibility for teachers, as it is for other professions. To achieve that, we must develop appropriate structures to enable teachers to access high-quality, subject-specific PD throughout their careers. In maths we are now making real progress towards achieving this.

The three major DfE-funded programmes to support maths teaching in England: the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme (AMSP) and the Maths Hubs Programme, work together to provide and support high-quality PD for teachers of mathematics.

Over the Christmas break I re-read Rebecca Allen’s and Sam Sims’s excellent book, The Teacher Gap, which analyses the difficulties we face in improving educational standards and the issues facing teacher recruitment and development in England[4]. They identify three major ‘teacher gaps’ in our national education provision:

  1. The gap between what we know about the importance of teachers and how we treat them.
  2. The difference between the number of teachers we need and the number we have.
  3. The difference between the quality of teachers we currently have and the quality of teachers we want.

They conclude that to improve education we must attract and retain excellent teachers, and to do that, it must be clear that teaching is ‘a career worth having’. That will only happen if these ‘teacher gaps’ are closed.

The programmes we have in place to support the subject-specific PD of teachers of mathematics can all contribute to the narrowing of each of these gaps. Evaluation evidence[5] and feedback from teachers engaging with these programmes indicates that the PD they provide is of high quality and is valued greatly:

‘A fab day back with NCETM, this time for Work Group Lead training on same-day intervention. Thanks for all the support from the established WGLs, the wealth of reading and useful strategies. Excited to get started!

(Year 5 teacher working with Abacus NW Maths Hub)

‘I have attended a number of CPD sessions with @NMMathsHub including TSST, SEND working group and Teaching challenging topics at GCSE. All have supported and enhanced my teaching this year.’

(Secondary teacher working with North Mids Maths Hub)

Maths teaching faces particular problems:

  • The shortage of secondary maths teachers is particularly acute: In 2018/19 initial teacher training targets for secondary maths teachers were missed by 30%. Provisional figures for 2019/20 suggest the shortfall has increased to 36% (with an overall shortfall in secondary school teacher recruitment of 15%)[6].
  • Retention rates for maths teachers are lower than for most other subjects (over 10% of maths teachers leave teaching each year, for early-career maths teachers it’s nearer 15%)[7].
  • Because maths is such a high-stakes subject, for both students and their schools, and there is a serious shortage of specialist maths teachers, school senior leadership teams are often reluctant to allow maths teachers time away from the classroom to support their PD. Furthermore, maths teachers themselves can be reluctant to devote time to their own professional development because they feel they should prioritise the immediate needs of their current students over their own professional development, even though PD would improve their teaching and so benefit students in the long term.

The first two points relate to the high demand for maths skills in the economy. Those well-qualified in mathematics can earn high salaries in other professions that many would consider less demanding than teaching (though I’d argue that maths teaching can provide a hugely rewarding career).

Jenny Laurie, Maths Hub Lead for London Central and North West Maths Hub, has written about her experiences at St Marylebone School—where she is a deputy head—that suggest professional development through the NCETM and collaborative working in the maths department has helped support maths teacher retention: ‘We’ve only lost one maths teacher in the last four years’[8].

The third point is particularly frustrating because embedding a culture of lifelong expert professional learning would help to raise the status of maths teaching as a respected, coherent profession and so assist with the recruitment and retention of specialist maths teachers in the long term. There are ways to mitigate this problem – for example the AMSP has developed twilight and weekend PD programmes and online PD that can be accessed outside class teaching time, but these place additional demands on teachers’ time. The new Ofsted framework should help, but I believe teachers should be entitled to a protected amount of subject-specific PD each year, as is the case in jurisdictions that perform highly in international comparisons of education standards. Teachers in Shanghai are expected to complete a minimum of 240 hours of PD over a five-year period, and teachers in Singapore are entitled to 100 hours of PD per year[9].

The NCETM, the AMSP and Maths Hubs are working together to establish a culture where high-quality, subject specific PD is embedded as a key element of being a teacher of mathematics (at both primary and secondary school level). This supports maths teachers’ status as expert professionals who are continually working to improve their expertise and so improve the mathematics education of their students.

Many teachers’ current experience of subject-specific PD is of external courses they might attend once a year or so, delivered by experts who may have little connection to teachers’ everyday classroom experiences. These courses have an important role to play to support the development of specialist subject or pedagogical knowledge, or the introduction of new curricula/qualifications. However, much PD can and should be acquired between colleagues as part of their standard working practices in school. Research evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of PD led by expert practitioners working to support the collaborative professional development of maths teachers[10]. PD within and between schools encourages and enables teachers to plan lessons collaboratively, experiment with ideas in the classroom, observe one another’s teaching and share and discuss experiences, working together to hone their practice informed by rapid feedback that is directly relevant to their specific circumstances.

A national structure to support teacher PD requires a blend of internal and external elements, embedded as part of the standard job of being a teacher. This is how high-performing jurisdictions identified through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) develop and support their maths teachers[11].

This is the model championed by the NCETM, working with the national network of Maths Hubs and the AMSP. A national cohort of ‘Local Leaders of Maths Education’, mostly school-based, is being developed through the NCETM and deployed by Maths Hubs to lead maths PD within and between schools in each Maths Hub area. These local leaders include primary and secondary Mastery Specialists[12], trained by the NCETM, other experienced expert maths teachers who have been trained as NCETM-accredited maths professional development leads[13], Teaching School designated Specialist Leaders of Education[14], highly skilled and experienced maths teachers who have become Maths Hub Leads, AMSP Area Coordinators[15] and university-based maths education experts.

I would like to see the Local Leader of Maths Education role develop into a new career path for expert specialist teachers of maths (at both primary and secondary school level). These teachers would spend part of their time teaching students and part of their time developing maths teachers, both within their own schools and across other local schools, coordinated through their local Maths Hub. This career path could improve maths teacher retention by enabling expert professionals to earn more and achieve higher status in the teaching profession, without the need to move into school management. Too many of our talented expert maths teachers feel forced to leave the classroom in order to progress in their careers, either moving into school management or leaving teaching altogether. In high-performing jurisdictions the expert subject specialists’ role is revered[10]. They fulfil a vital function in developing more junior colleagues to continually improve their specialist subject teaching, so improving students’ learning. Committed expert subject specialist teachers aspire to become ‘master teachers’; they are motivated to continue teaching the subject they love and to share their expertise to develop other teachers.

We certainly have a long way to go, but the NCETM, learning from national and international evidence, and linking with the AMSP and the Maths Hub Network, is helping to develop a national professional infrastructure for maths teachers. This work is helping to ensure that teaching maths is indeed ‘a career worth having’.

Read previous posts in the Charlie’s Angles blog

[2] Robinson, V (2013), Dimensions of An Effective Leader, The London Centre for Leadership in Learning.

[3] Schleicher, A (2018), World Class: How to build a 21st-Century School System, OECD publishing, Paris.

[4] Allen, R and Sims, S (2018), The Teacher Gap, Routledge.

[5] Sheffield Hallam University (2019), An Evaluation of the Further Mathematics Support Programme 2017-18.

[9] Schleicher, A (2018), World Class: How to build a 21st-Century School System, OECD publishing, Paris.

[11] Schleicher, A (2018), World Class: How to build a 21st-Century School System, OECD publishing, Paris.

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