Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Cockcroft - 30 Years On

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Cockcroft - 30 Years On

Article excerpt

Barbara Ball, Kath Cross, and George Knights, suggest that time does not diminish the contemporary relevance of two significant publications for teachers of mathematics

Barbara, Kath and George 'looked back', in a plenary session at the 2012 conference, at the publication of the Cockcroft report, and to ATM's publication Teaching Styles: a response to Cockcroft 2432. They also 'looked forwards', issuing a challenge to future work within ATM.


We are here to reflect and look back on things that took place over 30 years ago.

We are not offering this session purely as a historical reflection, but because we believe there are important things to share which have something to say today to:

* teachers of mathematics

* ATM as an organisation

* and those involved and/or are interested in mathematics education

Having said that, I make no apology for beginning with a personal reflection.

When you are a teacher, out in the sticks of North East Lancashire, it is not every day that you receive an invitation from the then Secretary of State for Education Shirley Williams to be part of a Committee of Inquiry into the teaching of your subject.

This inquiry was a response to Prime Minister James Callaghan's Great Debate speech and the terms of reference were:

To consider the teaching of mathematics in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, with particular regard to the mathematics required in further and higher education, employment and adult life in general, and to make recommendations. '

The amazing thing, when you look back, is that the Committee was given three years to carry out its work, and the conclusions were based on research findings, information from surveys from the Assessment of Performance Unit and HM Inspectorate, as well as visits by Committee members to work places and different types of schools.

But why should we be surprised by this? More recent initiatives such as the Primary Numeracy Strategy have been expected to deliver in a very short time, and how many times were things initiated even before the pilot stage was completed?

There was an immediate positive response to the report: advisory teachers, the so called Cockcroft missionaries, were appointed in Local Education Authorities and mathematics centres were set up and used for valuable in-service training.

The report had a wide sphere of influence. It influenced, for example:

* the HMI Curriculum Matters series, frequently referred to as 'raspberry ripples'

* the development of the content of the National Curriculum

* the structure of the examination system - testing what you know rather than what you don't know!

* the work on the achievement of girls and mathematics

Educators in other countries even showed interest, and the HMI Staff Inspector at the time - Trevor Fletcher (an important member of ATM, especially in its formative days) - travelled to Europe to speak at conferences. A student in China translated the whole report into Cantonese.

In this country there was much immediate activity and there was a strong focus on certain paragraphs and themes:

* the needs of adult life were described as 'a feeling for number'

* while the needs of employment were identified as 'a feeling for measurement'

Among the other paragraphs that caught particular attention were the following:

* Paragraph 39 - Numeracy: 'We would wish the word 'numerate' to imply the possession of two attributes. The first is an 'at-homeness' with numbers and an ability to make use of mathematical skills which enables an individual to cope with the practical mathematical demands of his everyday life. The second is an ability to have some appreciation and understanding of information which is presented in mathematical terms, for instance in graphs, charts or tables or by reference to percentage increase or decrease'

* Paragraph 228: 'Mathematics is a difficult subject both to teach and to learn'

* Paragraph 462: 'Mathematics lessons in secondary schools are very often not about anything', [note; the bold text here are as in the report]

The most quoted paragraph was 243, known in shorthand as Paragraph 35. …

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