I recently came across an article in which Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, claimed ‘Britain is still in denial about its Maths problem.’ Truss is amongst a wealth of other significant figures in government, education and public life, most notably Carol Vorderman, who have, in recent years, paid reference to the fact that UK students are falling behind their international peers when it comes to mathematical competence. Are they right, and what can be done about it?
Does the UK have a Maths problem?
The Vorderman report is one of a number making a series of assertions about the need for a change in Maths education in the UK. In summary, these reports highlight the following concerns:
- Poor Prospects: 30% of UK businesses in the CBI’s Education and Skills Survey reported dissatisfaction with the standard of school leavers’ numeracy. Some 68% of employers said they wanted both Maths and Science promoted more in schools. Furthermore, 1.4 million workers in the UK believe they have missed out on a promotion, or even lost a job, due to a lack of basic Maths.
- Poor Participation Post 16: In a report by the Nuffield Foundation it was found that fewer than one in five students in the UK study any kind of Maths after GCSE, the lowest levels of participation in the 24 developed countries surveyed - behind the likes of France, USA, Russia and China.
- Comparatively Low Teaching Time: In England less time is spent teaching Maths (116 hours a year at age 14) compared with mathematically high performing countries: Chinese Taipei (166 hours), Singapore and Hong Kong (138 hours) (TIMSS 2011).
- Poor Performance: International league tables, collated by PISA, show that England’s performance in Maths has stagnated at ages 10, 14 and 15 where other countries have seen gradual increase.
So why is Maths so important?
Well, it has been suggested that in a digital age the importance of Maths is declining; growth in computer dependency results in individuals needing to rely less on their own mathematical competence. However, and in contrast, we are in fact exposed to much more mathematical data than we have ever been and as a result we require the expertise and confidence to make sense of it all. In industry and commerce Maths is employed widely on a day-to-day basis, from statistical processing of control in bespoke software design to the fundamental appreciation of ratio, proportion and percentage in finance. This is not to mention the important contribution Maths has made to the development of mobile phone technology, security systems, computers and even Google. Furthermore, the OECD suggests that basic numeracy is “the best protection against unemployment, low wages, and poor health” and improvements in Maths education could add a further £3.8 trillion pounds to the UK economy. Mathematical competence is also essential in our personal lives as we navigate mortgages, pensions and credit cards as well as the array statistical information relayed via the media. Put simply, Maths is much more than just a subject!
What can be done about it?
Clearly, if we are to provide the next generation with the best possible preparation for work and if we are to compete at a national level with our international counterparts, the current position - where only those who are seen to be very good at Maths continue to study it post 16 - has to change! The above reports recommend that Maths should be studied in some form until students leave school at 18 years old. Whilst A-Level Maths is almost certainly not for everyone, and none of the aforementioned reports are suggesting that it is, providing a variety of post-16 maths courses to further develop students’ mathematical skills looks to be the way forward. The proposed new qualifications will be around half the size of an A level (2 hours a week of teaching time) and taught over 2 years.
In light of the upcoming general election it will be very interesting to see how the next government takes this issue forward.