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4 May 2023


The BBC at its worst.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

Some things are inevitable and it was no surprise that the BBC’s reaction to the Prime Minister’s plan to increase the nation’s mathematical skills by requiring everyone to continue with the subject until the age of 18, was to focus on those, 6% of the population we are told, who suffer from dyscalculia; that is to say they have difficulty with the type of association on which mathematics depends. Needless to say the BBC’s idea of focussing is to publish toe-curling interviews with people alleged to be suffering from this condition saying how the initiative has upset them, made them feel inadequate, put them off their lunch etc, etc.

Let’s begin, though, by worrying about the other 94%, many of whom give up maths after GCSE despite having the ability to take it further. Is it right that they should be able to give it up, making a voluntary surrender of the God-given equipment which would enable them to thrive in an increasing numerical world? Well, is it? For that matter, should those who are scientifically minded be able to cripple their literacy by abandoning the humanities at quite such an early stage?

There is an old adage that a second-rate idea well expressed will always beat a first-rate idea badly expressed and that chimes with common experience. It follows, then, that for the best ideas to flourish their advocates must have both the logical nous to develop them and also the ability to express them clearly. That means that the educational system should encourage people to combine scientific and mathematical expertise with a high level of literacy and rhetorical skills. At the moment it does not, with early specialism in either the arts or sciences dictating that it is often the second-rate ideas which get talked about and the first-rate ideas which get buried. That isn’t to say, of course, that one needs to give aspiring humanities graduates exactly the same mathematical education as the mathematically gifted. The art is to ensure that limited mathematical talents are exploited as far as they can be.  That goes for talents in other subjects as well. There is a lot of work to be done in developing curricula which will achieve this.

What is not acceptable though is that an attempt to widen education generally should be blocked by the sensitivities of those who find difficulty in dealing with particular subjects. No one suggests that particular weaknesses should bar a career to which they are not relevant but nor should the system be distorted by attempts to hide them. Dyscalculia, like illiteracy, is a form of disability and as such it will limit opportunity for those who suffer from it. It is to be hoped that such limitations will be kept to a minimum but those that remain must be honestly faced and it is certainly not right to distort the education of those who do not suffer from it to accommodate the feelings of those who do.

Many of us, as we get older, suffer from disabilities of one sort or another. Perhaps it becomes difficult to get up steps and that means that certain public spaces become beyond bounds. Great progress has been made in facilitating disabled entrances over the last few years and many venues have been opened up to those who could not previously have used them. That is a great matter but to go one step further and start closing establishments which cannot be opened up in this way in order to preserve the feelings of disabled people would be to sacrifice the pleasure of the remainder of the community for no sensible reason at all.

If those with physical disability have to face their disadvantages and accept that there are limits to the extent to which they can be assisted, then the same rule needs to apply to those whose disabilities are mental or intellectual. That is why it is disappointing to see the BBC publishing interviews with people who claim to suffer from dyscalculia and whinge on about how they will regard the increased accent on mathematics as some sort of slap in face. How much more one would think of them if they said that they would go along with what benefited the majority and turn their energies to ways in which their special needs could be accommodated within the new system. That, however, would hardly make news and certainly not the sort of news beloved by those who follow the BBC.

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