Rishi figures it out

4 May 2023

Rishi figures it out

by Paul Branch

The state of our education system leaves much to be desired in many ways, but Rishi Sunak has picked on mathematics as an area to zero-in on, where we are so far behind many other countries that it’s becoming an embarrassment as well as holding us back financially.  One international study shows the UK ranked 17th in the world for attainment in maths by 15-year-olds; well below many Asian countries, but also lower than some of the smaller European states. 

The prime minister’s vision for England is to reimagine our approach to numeracy, whereby all pupils carry on studying maths in some form or the other up to the age of 18.  He has acknowledged we need to bring our children’s numeracy skills back up to a level where they will be able to compete in a modern world seemingly totally dependent on commerce and technology, data and statistics, but it will certainly take some doing.

Obviously one critical component in the execution of Rishi’s commendable plan is the ability to recruit and train enough teachers to impart even the basic skills of mathematics in our schools.  In England there are around 35,000 secondary school maths teachers, responsible for a discipline which is relevant to many others.  By comparison there are some 40,000 teaching English and 45,000 science teachers.  Previous studies have recognised the need for more qualified maths teachers, but sadly recruitment targets have been missed regularly year on year.  For a country like ours, to have to rely on graduates in other subjects, in geography, science or PE in nearly half our secondary schools to teach and inspire youngsters, is an indictment of our approach to education over many years, and an indication of the indifference of our previous leaders when it comes to numeracy.  As in other public service areas, there is a case for higher teachers’ pay in order to attract budding recruits, then motivate and retain them.  But as with many government policies where the focus is purely on cost rather than consequences, the numbers just don’t add up, but that’s not confined of course to just the teaching of mathematics.

Although the intent has been broadly welcomed, in addition to the aforementioned sharp increase in specialist maths teachers it does need a change of focus away from passing exams to a broader strategy of teaching the principles and fundamentals of the subject.  Certainly exams are there to be passed and to help gauge how well the teaching and learning processes are working, but the logic behind the questions and how to answer them needs to be understood.  There also has to be enjoyment in learning how to do maths, guarding against the fear of tests carried out almost in an incomprehensible foreign language and leaving pupils floundering from an early age. Currently a third of young people (around 175,000 a year on average) fail GCSE maths and many more just scrape a pass mark.  When faced with compulsory resits in college, only 20% pass at the second attempt.

The grading system is said to contribute to high failure rates, and one way of avoiding the issue has been suggested – by the simple expedient of allowing everyone to pass.  Such a radical reform looks less like a solution and more like ducking the issue rather than ensuring the time spent by teachers and pupils alike has been effective.

Secondary schools are by no means the only establishments failing on maths.  Despite recent improvements, last year less than 60% of primary school leavers reached the expected standard, putting even more pressure on secondary schools to help such children catch up and then go on to develop further.  Even so, too many pupils are still left behind when it comes to maths, well before they get to 16.  At the other end of the scale it’s common for university students studying economics for example to struggle in their first year if they enter with a shaky A-level maths background, requiring essential remedial work before they can benefit fully from a college education.

Mr Sunak claims with some degree of credibility that children risk being left behind in the jobs market without a solid foundation in maths, and that they also suffer when it comes to understanding and managing some of the more practical aspects of life such as mortgages, interest rates and inflation (especially the exponential variety).  However he adds that poor numeracy skills is also a problem for employers, costing the national economy tens of billions a year.  Quite where that figure comes from remains a mathematical mystery, but perhaps the answer lies in the old British malaise of poor industrial efficiency and productivity.  If there’s more numerical savvy in a company, there’s more chance someone will come up with a bright idea, perhaps a technological improvement, that yields productivity benefits.

The proposed extent of the syllabus for continuing to study mathematics throughout a child’s school life is planned to become clear by the summer with the aid of a special working group set up by the Department for Education but including external experts.  Given that not every child sees beauty and pleasure in areas such as calculus or even trigonometry, and indeed may never need nor wish to see their like ever again once having left school, there are however some branches of maths where a grasp of the basics and their application in real grown-up life may come in handy.  Arithmetic is obviously an essential:  scanning a restaurant bill to make sure it adds up, adding on a tip, and if the occasion demands adding the two together and dividing by the number in the party is but one everyday example of how numeracy helps.  Understanding the building blocks of the national budget is another, as is the ability to estimate areas and volumes.  Statistics, probability theory and increasingly game theory also give insights into how we characterise the modern world and its issues.  The trick though is to keep it relevant for those to whom such concepts don’t come easy, and to make the learning experience enjoyable, neither of which will happen without a lot more skilled and motivated teachers.

In Westminster the current swathe of politicians give ample example of what happens when a nation’s leadership is significantly lacking in numeracy skills.  The financial crisis of 2007 arguably hit the UK harder and persisted for longer than in other comparable countries, arguably because there was implicit trust in the over-bloated financial sector and its magic money tree, and insufficient intelligent oversight or regulation.  As Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II asked at the time: “Why did nobody see this coming?”  And answer came there none, from government or anyone else.   More recently management of the Covid crisis was mostly in the hands of those who had a wealth of experience in articulate debating at school and university, but who had forsaken any consideration of the more numerate disciplines at a very early age to study the Classics, Ancient History or English Literature.  The reams upon reams of statistical and probabilistic data presented to them by experts in health and medicine meant close to nothing, as did the explanations offered, yet they were expected to make life or death decisions on behalf of us all, with consequences now at last being scrutinised.

Well done though to Rishi for at least trying to rectify our national penchant for innumeracy.  And if the DfE can come up with a plausible plan to bring Mathematics at an appropriate level back into the national consciousness, with the resources it requires, we’ll all be in seventh heaven, or even on cloud nine (but that’s enough numeric idioms for one day).

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