By Peter Stanford
Numeracy challenges like those pictured above should not be beyond 11-year-old children.
The tragedy is that thousands can’t even begin to tackle them, and never gain the basic numeracy skills that they – and the country – need. An estimated seven million adults have such a poor grasp of maths that they are at a serious disadvantage in the workplace.
Our children, meanwhile, are outstripped by pupils abroad. Today, with the backing of teachers, academics, businessmen and some star performers, the Telegraph launches its Make Britain Count campaign to help reverse this potentially catastrophic decline.
Times tables were never this much fun in my school days. The 10- and 11-year-olds at Hall Meadow Primary in Kettering are gathered on the carpet for a quick‑fire session with their teacher, Christopher Bailey, on all those tricky ones – nine eights, eight sevens or six nines. And they get them all right. But more remarkably, they are all laughing and excited. There’s no sign of the fear of getting it wrong that is etched on my memory. Maths, half of them tell me afterwards, is their favourite subject.
Hall Meadow is a model for how maths could be. This Northamptonshire primary is the way ahead if we are to make Britain count. Consistently rated outstanding by Ofsted, it sends 100 per cent of its pupils on to secondary school with maths skills significantly above the level prescribed in Sats tests . Better still, these children are unaware that for many others, of school age and beyond, maths is a bogey subject that increasing numbers are flunking.
The evidence is stacking up that Britain is turning its back on maths. Ofsted reports that many 14-19-year-olds going through our education system “don’t expect to understand mathematics”. A third of pupils taking GCSE maths are, according to official statistics, failing to achieve as high a grade as their abilities at 11 suggest they should. Worse, the Royal Society warns that there is a “significant shortage” of 16-18-year-olds taking A-level maths. And, of 300,000 university students whose degrees require mathematics beyond GCSE level, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (Acme) estimates only 125,000 have actually continued the subject after 16.
“We have to get away from the culture that says it’s OK not to do maths,” warns the scientist Dame Julia Higgins, recently retired chair of Acme. “No one thinks it’s OK not to read. For many cultures in this country – Chinese, Indian – skill at mathematics is just expected. We need to expect all our young people to be able to solve problems.”
Centuries ago, a good British education consisted of Greek, Latin and a dash of theology. Later it was the three Rs – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. So does it matter if maths is sidelined in the classroom to make room for the new priorities such as the “creative curriculum”?
In short, yes. It matters a great deal. Education prepares us for life, and a weak grasp of number skills and basic mathematics is leaving today’s school-leavers ill-equipped to deal with a workplace that is ever more maths-based. The CBI reports that 35 per cent of employers find the maths skills of school-leavers “inadequate”.
Last month, the Government announced plans to reform the ICT (information and communications technology) curriculum for schools because of compelling evidence that the shortage of computer science graduates is damaging Britain’s world-beating hi-tech creative industries. But that is putting the cart before the horse – or the solution before the sum.
Until our fundamental problem with school maths is addressed, all efforts to upgrade the whole range of subjects – including computer science – that rely on a ready supply of competent, confident, engaged mathematicians will be fatally flawed.
This deep-rooted problem has not escaped the attention of successive governments. In 1999, David Blunkett introduced the National Numeracy Strategy for all primary schools (updated in 2006). Many questioned the use of the word “numeracy” as a New Labour attempt to rebrand good old-fashioned “mathematics”.
The latest changes to ICT teaching form part of a bigger review of the National Curriculum at the behest of Education Secretary Michael Gove. The priority Mr Gove places on mathematics can be judged by remarks he made to the Royal Society last June. He would like to see, he said, the “vast majority” of pupils studying the subject to the age of 18 within a decade. There were, he added, “strong arguments” for “making certain subjects compulsory for longer”.
His comments were aimed directly at the “post-16 maths gap” – the fact that, for many, maths is something to be endured until they scrape a GCSE pass, then discarded, often joyfully, for life. Changing that prejudice may require much more than forcing unwilling students to do two more years of maths lessons.
The challenge exists at all levels. Extra resources have in recent years been directed into teaching maths in primary school, but research shows that too often children have effectively written off maths by the age of eight – something that doesn’t happen with literacy. Maths teachers in secondary schools therefore start at a disadvantage, having to make up lost ground and reignite pupils’ confidence in the subject. But there is a shortage of suitably qualified maths graduates in comprehensive classrooms, despite “golden hellos” from the Government. With a maths degree, after all, you have plenty of attractive employment options.
Uninspired or non-specialist teaching from 11 to 16 has a knock-on effect on numbers prepared to risk being labelled “nerds” or “geeks” by their peers for continuing with maths to A-level. That, in turn, feeds into insufficient numbers at degree level. In many subjects that would benefit from A-level maths, universities are being forced to accept those with none, because otherwise they would simply not have enough applicants. And this is not just a problem in the education system. Too many who turn their backs on maths at 16 are ill-placed to instil a love of maths in their own children, or encourage them with their homework. Keeping up our number skills in adult life, when there are always calculators to hand on our computer screens and phones, is seen by many as a challenge that can be ducked.
But not here. The Daily Telegraph’s Make Britain Count campaign squares up to this national crisis in numeracy and mathematics, with the backing of celebrities such as Countdown’s Rachel Riley, “Stand-up Mathematician” Matt Parker, businessman and chair-designate of National Numeracy Chris Humphries CBE, plus academics and education experts. If you have already fallen into the “post-16 maths gap”, there will be help to assess and brush up your skills. We’ve asked Matt Parker to come up with a series of challenging questions (see box) on a regular basis. And for those more broadly concerned about the failings of maths teaching, and its impact on the workplace, there will be reports on good and bad practice in an effort to answer some of the crucial questions now facing Britain: questions that go to the heart of our ability to remain competitive in the global economy.
How to improve standards of teaching? How to reverse the perception that it is cool to fail in maths? How to attract more A-level students to become the maths-literate graduates our economy is crying out for? And how to add maths to the list of essential life skills we all want to master?
However much some may wish to believe it, no one is born with a natural aversion to maths or numbers, as the pupils at Hall Meadow ably demonstrate. When they have reluctantly ended their session on times tables, I ask them to come up with one word each to describe what it is about maths that gets them so engaged. “Challenge”, “independence”, “fun” come back some of the responses; but then a light bulb goes on in my head as one girl replies “creativity”.
Perhaps it is the legacy of my own maths lessons, but I hear myself saying back to her: “Really? creative?” Chris Bailey raises his eyebrow. No one, you see, in this class has ever thought of maths as different, more difficult than other subjects, or any of the other negative images that so often accompany it.
And it is creative, of course, when well taught. In the patterns and connections between numbers, there is, enthusiasts point out, a beguiling language all of its own. The challenge is to convey that. It is one that the Make Britain Count campaign will be meeting in the weeks and months ahead.