As a long-time maths teacher, the latest assessments by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Programme for International Student Assessment make for tough reading. They indicate that there is little evidence of real gains having been made in maths and science in England over the past four years.

Now that the government’s policy to emphasise Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) appears to have borne meagre fruit, I’m wondering whether it has been worth the effort. Almost silent on the issue so far, ministers in England might want to claim that these reports show the nation pretty much holding its own; but the real picture is more worrying.

The Timss assessment saw England’s ranking in science for 13 and 14-year-olds move up from 9th to 8th, but this was mostly put down to Finland not entering for that age group. There were slight improvements in performance in maths, but not on the level of gains seen by Kazakhstan, pushing England down from 10th to 11th place. Released this week, the Pisa study saw pupils in England get lower scores than previously, but, because of variations in the participating nations, it was accompanied with a shift up in ranking.

What, then, do we have to show for the past few years’ vigorous emphasis on Stem? Not a great deal – and I believe that rather than pushing schools towards narrowing curricula to give more time to maths and science, ministers should be encouraging them to restore the arts to their proper place.

In my own south-east London school there has been pressure to add more maths lessons. As a department we have resisted because we felt it right that the school continued to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, with music, art and drama given proper space in the timetable.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case elsewhere. My son – in Year 8 at a large boys comprehensive – has a compacted Key Stage 3, squeezing everything into Years 7 and 8 and beginning GCSE courses in Year 9. With more time given to science and maths, instead of three years of art and different aspects of design technology, he gets two terms of each, spread over two years.

The focus on Stem was meant to deliver a narrowing of the achievement gap between UK pupils and those in the Pisa league-topping Asian countries like Singapore and South Korea. “Singaporean maths” have been the buzzwords over the past few years, but is matching their students’ achievements in maths and science a worthy aspiration for us in the UK? A typical day for a pupil in Singapore involves hours of intense private tuition late into the evening. This is an educational culture massively focused on Stem achievement, and one that creates very high stress and anxiety. In chasing this elite group at the top of the Pisa rankings, are we prepared to have our teenage suicide rate doubled to match theirs too?

Of course, there are things we can learn from the way that maths and science are taught in high-performing nations. Yet the league table that few in the Department for Education are prepared to talk about is the one that shows the average UK teacher spending 4 days per year receiving professional development, while teachers in Shanghai receive 40 days annually. In terms of the time we are investing in helping teachers become more skilled professionals, we rank 30th out of 36 developed nations.

Continuing to ask more from teachers, while giving them less to do it, is a recipe for disaster – not just for league table positions, but for the wellbeing and mental health of staff, and thus the progress of pupils too. If we really want our students to do better, we should invest properly in our teachers.

Decisions on educational priorities are about the sort of nation we want to become. The UK already ranks second in the list of most Nobel laureates – with the majority of these prizes coming in science and medicine. In forcing an ever more efficient production line of high-performing school-level mathematicians and scientists, we risk strangling the creative arts. My hunch is that British strength in the arts is integral to understanding why we have so many Nobel prizes: breakthroughs in science and technology always need a spark of creativity, too.

Science and engineering aside, from a purely economic standpoint the UK’s creative industries have been growing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the economy, as the government’s own figures show. In a world rankings for playwrights, bands, designers and artists, I’d bet that we leave those currently at the top of Pisa far behind.

We do need to reaffirm the significance of science and maths to our technological prowess; but we must never forget the huge importance of teaching the arts to our future economy and cultural heritage.

Article Originally Published In: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/09/maths-science-stem-subjects-england-schools

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