Maths degrees and maths teaching. Never say never

When is ‘not good enough’ inappropriate?

Noel Ann Bradshaw 

I actually embarked on a maths degree as a mature student, which might sound surprising. I really loved maths at school but I just didn’t choose to do double maths for some reason. So when I came to choose a university course at 17 my teachers said I shouldn’t apply to study maths at university because not doing double maths meant I was obviously ‘not good enough’.  It shows how much power teachers’ words can have to influence decisions and whole lives in effect. I have to confess, this really knocked my confidence.

From A to fail

So instead I did something completely different and applied for degree courses in catering management. But ironically managed to fail my maths A level even though I had achieved an A grade at the end of year one. It’s strange how life goes. I guess I just felt deflated about not having the option to study maths at university.

I really did love maths

Life took me on a different course after that. I got married young and had 4 children. This was the start of my new learning curve.  Yet it was through helping my kids that I realised that yes, I really did love maths and yes, contrary to my advisers I really did have skills.

royal naval college

From numeracy to infinity

That was just the start. I decided to teach basic numeracy skills to adults. I also really enjoyed that very much. The teaching really appealed to me. In fact it was my tutor who had helped me in so many ways during this period that suggested that I went on to do a maths degree.

Did I possess the appropriate skills for a maths degree?

I must confess to feeling very scared when I applied to my local university at Greenwich. Obviously I didn’t have the conventional entry requirements but as I had studied A-level mathematics and was a mature student I was asked to sit an entrance test. They informed me this test would demonstrate whether I possessed the appropriate skills and capacity for a degree in maths.

I was quite petrified by the thought and undertook an absolute stack of revision. Rather amazingly I did more than pass. What a day it was when I discovered I’d done rather well and a maths degree was about to become reality.

Obviously my schoolteachers had done a thorough job at making me doubt my mathematical abilities and I thought I’d probably bump along at the bottom of my cohort. My ultimate aim was to get through and then teach secondary maths.

From entrance exam to PhD

Actually I did slightly better than that. I ended up studying for a PhD and then getting a position as a Senior Lecturer. Yes, dear reader, I was shocked too. But actually my journey and all the things that happened has coloured just about everything I do at the University of Greenwich.

The Ambassador Scheme is worthwhile

One of the courses I teach at Greenwich is the Undergraduate  Ambassador Scheme where final year undergrads go into schools to help teach STEM subjects. The whole point is for them to try out whether teacher is a potential career for them. Actually it’s a scheme initiated by Simon Singh. It is a part of our maths degree and counts towards it.

Learn what you want to do

What a valuable scheme it is. Some students come away from the experience saying:  ‘Yes, teaching is definitely for me… some do well and think, well, maybe later and some say: ‘no way!’ We think it’s important and a real learning experience. Everyone should see what teaching is all about before embarking on an ITT course. It can save a lot of grief in the long run. The outcomes are actually very good because students know what they want to do.

At the University of Greenwich we always promote the maths scholarship scheme to final year students. It’s an excellent scheme to apply for alongside PGCE.

There are so many career options with a maths degree including teaching

I am always eager to demonstrate to teachers just what a maths degree can be used for. Teachers need to know what you can do with maths and what kind of careers it might lead to in the future. There are different types of degree courses both applied and pure and some containing more stats or more operational research. There is so much more for students to consider when they graduate. We have a duty to educate about the possibilities. There is such a wide variety of degrees and many are necessary for all kinds of employment and different career sectors. Often people are unaware of these truly staggering options.

Mind you perhaps I am biased. I am involved in the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) as Vice President of communications and that role is to promote the organisation and the fact that maths is a wonderful subject and  of interest at all different sectors...There’s something for everyone from  business, academia or simply people interested in everyday maths and data. We do maths all the time in our everyday lives even down to something as seemingly mundane as choosing which queue to join at the checkout.

Do you really know what Florence Nightingale achieved?

As we move on I am involved in teaching a new module at Greenwich entitled Data Analytics which has been put together with collaboration from industry so is giving our graduates the sort of skills required in today’s workplace. My aim to  get  people to visualize data better to make it more useful. Right now I am writing a book chapter on Florence Nightingale. People don’t realise that the work she did transformed medical data. Yes she was a nurse and hospital reformer but first and foremost she was a mathematician.

Are you prepared to have your say on the future maths curriculum?

I believe we need to be open minded and we have a duty to promote
teaching as a really valuable career to top maths grads. Some of our very best mathematical minds are going into primary teaching. How fantastic is that? It means they will be stunning teachers and also invigorate a new generation in terms of maths. In turn they may well produce a number of future maths teachers. They are so capable that it’s likely these individuals will go into high-powered positions or even become curriculum designers. Certainly, they will have an enormous impact on primary school maths teaching. This is vital because the UK does need more maths teachers and mathematicians.

Further Information
* Apply to be a Maths Scholar
* Get Into Teaching
* ITT at University of Greenwich

Great news! Alongside all the CPD benefits from the Maths Scholars Scheme the bursary has been increased to £27,500. It’s worth seeing what past scholars have said about being a Scholar.

Noel-Ann Bradshaw is a Maths lecturer at University of Greenwich. Interests: maths puzzles and games, history of maths, OR, maths education and graduate employment outcomes.