Stephen Twigg speaks on "A Numerate Society"

ACME held their Annual Conference on Tuesday - Greater than the sum of the parts: mathematics education. It was a great event with speeches from Elizabeth Truss, MP, Parliament Under-Secretary, Stephen Twigg, Shadow Education Secretary and Professor Peter McOwan, Vice Principal External Relations, Queen Mary, University London.

Stephen Twigg stressed the importance of numeracy and the ways in which it is crucial in everyday life - and highlighted our work:

"These are the kind of areas that National Numeracy, the new campaign to improve numeracy skills, are championing and I welcome the work they are doing. They rightly point out that adults with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be unemployed. That numeracy can be a bigger indicator of disadvantage than literacy. And that having a numerate population is vital to the UK building a strong economy and competing in the global economy."

As well as talking about the need to change attitudes to maths and to develop maths beyond 16, he also referred to our response to the curriculum review, and the need for building firm foundations in number understanding;

"As any Maths teacher will tell you, it is incredibly hard to progress in the subject without a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of mathematics. Pupils need time to develop a secure and thorough understanding of mathematical concepts. Mike Ellicock, the Chief Executive of National Numeracy recently wrote to the Education Secretary warning that the programmes of study in mathematics would mean a firm foundation in core concepts was “less rather than more likely."

"The fundamental concepts of addition and subtraction, place value, multiplication and division, need to be understood in a rigorous rather than a superficial way. Without them future study of mathematics is painful and pointless, and many then leave school without the maths they need for life. An "early dependence on instrumental and rote processes contradicts the best evidence, creates failures and will undermine attempts to raise standards of numeracy in primary school."

Read the full speech below.

Read the reports referenced in the speech:

 

ACME Conference Speech – “A Numerate Society”
Stephen Twigg, Shadow Education Secretary
9 July 2013


Thank you for that introduction, and for inviting me to speak today.

Under the auspices of the Royal Society, ACME continues to be a robust and rigorous voice championing the cause of mathematical education. As an independent committee, you provide a comprehensive and effective challenge to politicians when it comes to issues ranging from curriculum design to professional development.

Last year I know my colleague Kevin Brennan, the Shadow Schools Minister addressed you on a number of themes. He set out the challenges that we face in increasing the numbers of pupils who continue to study mathematics post 16, and how we continue to improve the standard of mathematical teaching and learning.

I hope today I can provide some more solutions to the problems that were posed.

 

The Importance of Numeracy

As a country we have historically failed to value Mathematics and numeracy in the way we value English and literacy.

Many well educated people would think nothing of saying they are ‘bad’ at arithmetic when they would baulk at saying they were bad at reading or writing.

Challenging this mindset is partly about confidence.

I want people who grow up in this country to have the numeracy skills that enable them to succeed as well rounded citizens.

That means being able to manage the family budget, and understand credit card rates or those from payday lenders.

Being able to understand how estimate how long a journey might take or split a restaurant bill.

Being able to critically assess statistics used by advertisers – and yes by politicians too.

These are the kind of areas that National Numeracy, the new campaign to improve numeracy skills, are championing and I welcome the work they are doing.

They rightly point out that adults with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be unemployed.

That numeracy can be a bigger indicator of disadvantage than literacy.

And that having a numerate population is vital to the UK building a strong economy and competing in the global economy.

Of course it is not just enough to be a numerate society, we must be a society that values advanced mathematics and be at the cutting edge of mathematical and scientific research.

On that point, it is of serious concern that while the numbers of young people studying Mathematics at A Level has increased over the past 10 years, the numbers of students going on to study Mathematics at University has been falling in recent years.

Part of the answer is making those courses attractive. But we need to ensure we stretch our most gifted and talented pupils at school.

Analysis of PISA data shows that England ranks 26th out of 34 OECD countries for how the most highly able 15 year olds perform in mathematics.

As the Sutton Trust points out, it is frankly scandalous that the few high performing pupils in England come mostly from independent and grammar schools, with “almost no pupils” achieving top levels from non-selective state schools.

We need to stretch our most able pupils, using better progress tracking and performance measures which are integral to the ways in which schools are assessed.

While there may be a case for reform, the Government has simply abolished the levels which measure the progress that pupils are making, with no adequate replacement.

Yesterday’s publication of the National Curriculum illustrated the problems with the Government’s approach. Not consulting with the experts first. But most worrying a real lack of ambition for our education system.

 

Maths to 18

One of the biggest challenges we face is the shift to a system where every pupil stays on in education or training until the age of 18.

Sadly, the number of young people staying on in education post 16 is declining since the Government cut back on support such as EMA, undermined high quality careers advice and relaxed the rules on students dropping out.

Last year, Labour announced one of the biggest changes to our education system – that all students would have to study English and Maths to 18, whatever path they choose.

This has gained widespread support, and yesterday I was pleased to see the CBI’s response to the new national curriculum backed our plan.

It said, “Ministers need to be more ambitious on maths – and make faster progress towards making it compulsory for all until 18, as many leading education systems do.”

The CBI also rightly point out that we need to improve basic numeracy levels before GCSE to ensure children have a firm foundation in the basics for studying mathematics later in life.

I believe we may need to develop new qualifications and courses in mathematics to give young people the most appropriate options post-16. That means ensuring those courses are relevant to employment. Some high quality applied post-16 courses already exist so we will look at what’s there and what needs developing.

Last week’s Sutton Trust report illustrated the ways in which the world of work has changed. Increasingly, workers need mathematical skills which are not necessarily covered in GCSE Maths.

“For example, paediatric nurses need to have a good idea of the relationship of millilitres to milligrams in administering medicine. If they don’t, the results could be fatal. Equally, a mortgage adviser is often presented with a simple graph explaining the savings a customer might make, but should be sufficiently knowledgeable to apply and explain that model and its assumptions to clients who don’t fit expected patterns if they are to do their job successfully.”

At present only a fifth of young people continue studying maths until the age of 18. Labour would change this to ensure we close the gap with other OECD countries where the majority of students continue studying mathematics post 16.

This would be a popular move amongst young people. Polling by Ipsos MORI for the Sutton Trust reveals that nearly two-thirds of young people believe they should continue learning maths and English to age 18.

 

Firm Foundations

As any Maths teacher will tell you, it is incredibly hard to progress in the subject without a firm grasp of the fundamental principles of mathematics. Pupils need time to develop a secure and thorough understanding of mathematical concepts.

Mike Ellicock, the Chief Executive of National Numeracy recently wrote to the Education Secretary warning that the programmes of study in mathematics would mean a firm foundation in core concepts was “less rather than more likely."

The fundamental concepts of addition and subtraction, place value, multiplication and division, need to be understood in a rigorous rather than a superficial way.

"Without them future study of mathematics is painful and pointless, and many then leave school without the maths they need for life."

An "early dependence on instrumental and rote processes contradicts the best evidence, creates failures and will undermine attempts to raise standards of numeracy in primary school."

It is a false rigour to simply demand pupils learn certain mathematical processes at an earlier age if that means they only understand those processes superficially and if the international evidence shows it is wrong.

I want to ensure that young people who enter secondary school have a firm foundation in numeracy, and if they do not then there must be ample opportunity for catch up tuition. I am interested to understand how we might make better use of the pupil premium to ensure that those pupils who fail to secure the firm foundations in numeracy are given a second chance.

Of course, a firm foundation should be secured even earlier. That’s why when we were in Government, Labour established ‘Every Child Counts’, which has now helped over 50,000 of those children with the greatest mathematical difficulties to access intensive support to enable them to catch up with their peers.

Under the guidance of Edge Hill University, Every Child Counts continues to succeed. Children with the greatest mathematical difficulties made an average of 15.7 months progress after only 3.7 months of support in Numbers Count.

I want to learn from best practice such as this to ensure that we close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others in primary school mathematics.

And on the curriculum, I do think that ACME has made a valuable suggestion that the primary curriculum should have a strand on ‘working mathematically’ just as there is a strand in the science curriculum on ‘working scientifically’. Pupils should be able to demonstrate their ability to apply mathematical skills and techniques across a range of subjects.

 

Workforce reform

Finally, I know that we can only deliver on the ambitions of a numerate society if we have a high quality workforce that is well respected.

For a number of years there has been a shortage of mathematics teachers, with recruitment particularly problematic in London and the South East.

I am also acutely aware that if we extend the teaching of mathematics to all pupils at age 18 that will require an expansion of the workforce. We also need to ensure that we improve the retention of high quality maths teachers in the profession.

We made some progress in Government in improving training and development through the National Centre for Excellence.

I want to go further to establish a ‘College of Teaching’ which would act as a vehicle for spreading best practice and improving CPD and teacher training. Clearly, the impetus for this must come from the teaching profession, but I believe a responsible Government should support the creating of such a professional body which would be the teaching equivalent of the medial royal colleges.

I know that ACME and a number of others in the mathematics community have called for an entitlement to subject specific CPD, and we are looking at how we can improve the quality of CPD as we move toward a manifesto for 2015.

Finally, I think there is a responsibility on politicians of all side to treat the teaching profession with respect. While I want to see high standards, insulting teachers – calling them “whingers” and the “enemies of promise” is unacceptable – and I can guarantee you that a Labour Education Secretary would never use such terms.

 

Conclusions

We need a bold approach to mathematics and numeracy. That sets clear ambitions to ensure every young person has the confidence and capability that will enable them to play their part in society and bolster their earning power. As well as a numerate society, we need to strengthen our national capacity in advanced mathematics and research if we are to compete with other OECD nations.

That is the clear challenge, and I look forward to our discussion and debate about how we best get there.