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Undergraduate mathematics diversified for non-standard entrants - whatever next! A case of teaching assistants and the curriculum

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posted on 2023-06-07, 04:42 authored by Patricia S Drake
This paper draws upon data from a longitudinal study of the first cohort of five students making the transition from teaching assistant in secondary school to specialist teacher of secondary mathematics via a new full-time honours degree in Mathematics Education Studies beginning in September 2002. Data from a second cohort of four women and one man starting in 2003 is less complete, but used as appropriate. To complete the degree each student must necessarily continue to work as a teaching assistant, and must complete some assessed work in their school setting. The study is thus located within theorised literature of widening participation, student choice, and learning mathematics. It is timely in view of government policy of a â??remodelled school workforceâ?? (DfES, 2004) whereby the stated intention is to complement a reduced cadre of qualified teachers with an enhanced number of staff supporting teaching and learning. I argue, using Bernsteinâ??s work (1996) on subject classification, this student group represents a different type of learner, navigating simultaneously two mathematics discourses: â??hardâ?? university mathematics, and â??everyday mathematicsâ?? as experienced by the lower ability school pupils that the students support when at work. Widening participation rhetoric focuses on enticing people into learning who would not otherwise be there (Hillage and Aston, 2001). This account relates to people who, despite being unqualified are already in educational institutions, i.e. schools, through their work. These are people who are â??pre-disposedâ?? favourably towards higher education (see for example Billet, 2001), and for whom progression is what is desired. The students have undergone a long, and autodidactical preparation for university study, illustrated in a variety of ways through previous personal and professional engagement with learning. The first group were aged between 35 - 49 on entry to the university, and all working as teaching assistants in three schools, two in each of two schools, and one in a third. None had higher than Grade B Intermediate GCSE in mathematics, but all had qualifications gained through continuing education as adults: in counselling, embroidery, art, design, numeracy, literacy and computer qualifications between them. In comparison with â??traditionalâ?? mathematics undergraduates1, i.e. higher than average A-level points scores on entry, and mainly following on straight from school, the first group of students have extremely limited mathematics qualifications. None has any parents, brothers or sisters that had attended university, and only one has graduates in her immediate family: her husband and daughter. In terms of national data on student populations as a whole (UCAS, Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics, 2004) this group is older than almost three-quarters of the undergraduate population and in a lower social class than half of them. The second group show some differences from the first, not in so far as their mathematics qualifications, but in the fact that two of them are already graduates of other subjects. Nevertheless, students are progressing through the programme, between them achieving the full range of marks, and, unlike traditional mathematics students, so far there has been no drop-out. These students exemplify a different type of mathematics learner, those for who mathematics has never been easy, have never been recognised as talented, and who have developed as a consequence successful strategies for dealing with the practically inevitable difficulties. They are people with specific graduate professional ambitions entering the academy with low level formal mathematics qualifications. These distinctions are forcing a rethink of what success in mathematics means, what may be useful pre-requisites in terms of pre-qualification, and the potential relationship between university learning of mathematics alongside work-place learning, in this case in a secondary school mathematics department.


Publication status

  • Published


Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sussex in conjunction with the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, SCUTREA

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Book title

Diversity and difference in lifelong learning: proceedings 35th annual conference SCUTREA

Place of publication

Brighton, England



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  • Education Publications


This paper was presented to the international SCUTREA conference in July 2005. It draws upon the experiences of students making the transition from teaching assistant in secondary school to specialist teacher of secondary mathematics, via a local degree programme set up specifically for this purpose. The study is located in theorised literature of widening participation, student choice, and learning mathematics.

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Pam Coare, Linda Morrice, Paul Armstrong, Mike Boice

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