I have been at the Irish Mathematical Society September meeting (no, this is not an Irish joke) in Tallaght, just outside Dublin.
I learned some interesting mathematics at the meeting. But I was quite struck by the interest and discussion of mathematics education, far more than you would find at an LMS meeting. There were (at least) four talks in this area out of 19 at the meeting, including one plenary.
The plenary talk was by Duncan Lawson from Coventry University, discussing the spate of reports produced by various bodies in the last couple of years on the state of mathematics education in Britain. He included a conclusion from the Smith report which stated
Higher education has little option but to accommodate to the students emerging from the current GCE process.
This is exactly what my new course is supposed to do!
Among the other talks were two about very different enrichment programmes at a lower level. Terry Maguire talked about the Have you got maths eyes? initiative in Tallaght, whose ideas are being taken up elsewhere. Aimed mainly at schoolchildren, it was phrased in such a way that adult learners could also use the material. Posters around the town challenged residents to answer questions with some mathematical content, and to see the mathematics in everyday situations. The emphasis was on curiosity-driven investigations; you can find many of their posters on their web page.
The Cork initiative on Maths Circles was presented by Julie O’Donovan. This has a different goal; it aims to set up after-school maths clubs in schools, using carefully selected university students as tutors. It has received many endorsements, including from professional bodies.
Two serious issues were not the subject of talks, but lurked just below the surface. One is a new secondary mathematics curriculum known as Project Maths. This is extremely contentious among University mathematicians since it could have a dramatic effect on the students they will get from school, and also because of its effect on the perception of maths in society. As an extreme simplification, the syllabus is intended to bring school mathematics closer to real-life problems in an effort to motivate the students; but its opponents say that, by ditching most of calculus and all of vectors and matrices, and by treating applications such as statistics and finance without the basic theory, it could cause considerable damage.
The other issue, concerning research rather than education, is a recent change in the funding procedures adopted by the Science Foundation Ireland. They have switched to investigator-led projects, and have made impact an essential part of the assessment, so much so that all mathematics proposals in the last year have been rejected for failing to demonstrate impact. The minutes of last year’s IMS meeting contain a report that
the SFI have no intention of supporting “useless” subjects such as mathematics.
Unlike Project Maths, this is a topic where mathematicians can all agree but don’t know what to do. I am sure that the IMS committee would welcome sensible advice. I also think that we should not give up the fight to persuade the general public, opinion formers, and politicians, that mathematics has enormous impact on society, even if current methods fail to measure this.