How should Norfolk tackle low number of students taking maths A-levels?

Concerns about the number of Norfolk's young people studying maths were raised in parliament yesterday, but what should be done about it? Education correspondent Victoria Leggett reports.

Politicians, headteachers and principals last night agreed not enough Norfolk youngsters were studying maths beyond the age of 16, harming their career prospects and earning potential.

MP Elizabeth Truss yesterday highlighted issues with both funding and recruitment – meaning at least one school in this county has had to go to Canada to find teachers – which she believes are holding students back.

But while most schools seem to acknowledge more work needs to be done, there is disagreement over the best way to approach it.

Proposals for a new specialist maths and science Free School sixth form in Norwich pledge to improve attainment at A-level, encourage more to study the subjects and offer teacher training to other schools.

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But some headteachers have questioned the thinking behind the project, insisting attempts to address the problems must start long before students reach the age of 16.

One fact not in dispute is that Norfolk's overall uptake when it comes to maths A-levels is lagging behind the rest of the country.

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Speaking in a House of Commons debate South West Norfolk MP Ms Truss (pictured) said: 'My county of Norfolk has a particular issue with maths.

'If you look at the number of students getting an A* to A [at GCSE] nationwide, 33pc of those students go on to do A-level.

'In Norfolk the figure is only 25pc which is a massive gap. So what we are looking to do in Norfolk is to improve that number and get pupils up to those levels.'

Research has shown students studying maths at A-level earn 10pc more than their peers when it comes to future careers.

'It's a really high value subject,' Ms Truss said. 'When I speak to businesses in Norfolk, they all say they are looking for people with those mathematical skills. There's a huge demand in the economy, but students don't take it.'

The MP believes a better funding formula – meaning schools get more cash for pupils studying maths – could be used to recruit teachers and promote the subject among youngsters.

Problems with attracting qualified maths teachers have been highlighted by attempts by Thetford Academy to fill vacancies, which led to it taking on three Canadians.

Mark Neild, vice principal (curriculum and data) at the academy, said after advertising the posts the school failed to attract applicants with strong enough maths backgrounds and instead went through a recruitment agency called Engage.

Two of the teachers will remain with the academy next while the third will be replaced by another from Canada in September.

He added: 'There needs to be some research into what maths teaching is competing with. Maybe they've gone into the city or into accounting. In Canada, being a maths teacher is seen as a desirable thing to do.'

Ms Truss has also backed proposals for the Sir Isaac Newton Free School, a planned sixth form in Norwich specialising in maths and science.

The idea, which comes from Ormiston Victory Academy principal Rachel de Souza and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital chairman David Prior, were thought up in response to what they see as problems with the subjects in Norfolk.

Mr Prior said: 'In Norfolk not enough are doing maths and science and those who are aren't getting good enough results.

'I don't think there is enough emphasis placed on bright children who have a particular aptitude for maths and sciences.

'We need to do more to encourage children like that and we need to point them towards good universities and employers.

'This new school, we believe, will attract outstanding teachers and outstanding children.'

Norfolk County Council has previously acknowledged attainment in maths at primary school level needs to be improved but headteachers last night said at A-level Norfolk's young people were holding their own.

Hellesdon High School said 93pc of its 20-plus maths A-level pupils last year had achieved A* to C grades while county-wide 30.3pc achieved A* and A grades last summer.

Some school leaders said they believed plans for the Free School were wide of the mark.

Gerard Batty, headteacher at Hellesdon High School, said any attempt to improve the uptake of maths and sciences needed to start long before A-levels.

He said: 'If we want to be getting kids turned on to maths and science, it starts at the age of six or seven.

'There needs to be some systematic approach to how we are doing in at primary schools and how we are selling it at high schools. But we don't need another institution.'

Rob Anthony, associate headteacher at The Hewett School in Norwich, said: 'I don't think it's going to have the dramatic change they expect it to have.

'They are aiming for the most able students, many of whom, at any sixth form, would go on to do well at maths or science A-levels.'

Free school proposer Mrs de Souza said: 'I don't disagree with the premise that we have to start young. What the maths and science free school will do is bring a very concentrated and high quality provision. Average isn't good enough. We've got to do better.'

She said the school did not aim to take the best students away from other schools but instead wanted sixth forms to specialise in a smaller range of subjects to give pupils the best chance.

Mrs de Souza said teacher secondments and continual professional development (CPD) training would also be offered to ensure all schools benefited from the free school's expertise.

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