We can improve the country's maths skills—if schools are given political spaceby Jay Elwes / February 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Why is Britain so bad at maths? A report published in January by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development showed that British pupils rank poorly by international standards. Among other findings, it showed that 22 per cent of British 15-year-olds struggle with arithmetic, in sharp contrast to Asian countries, where levels of attainment are much higher.
Prospect convened a round table to discuss this question which is of fundamental importance for Britain’s future. A sound grasp of mathematics is crucial for the well-being of an economy that increasingly relies on the management of large bodies of data. Falling behind in maths means falling behind in the ability to take advantage of the technological advances of our time.
Why does Britain have this issue? All agreed that Britain has a very specific and unusual challenge at the heart of its maths problem—a cultural resistance to maths. It is regarded as acceptable, and even usual, for a British person to say that they simply cannot “do” maths. In other countries an admission like this would be regarded as comparable to a claim of being unable to “do” reading. Not so in Britain. Attacking this cultural problem is crucial if attainment levels are to rise.
One of the causes of this cultural problem is that the rewards of the subject are deferred, much more so than other subjects. Until a pupil has achieved a high level of mathematical understanding, the biggest most interesting questions of the discipline will be beyond their grasp. This is in sharp distinction to reading, where a pupil can make much faster progress.
To bring maths “into the real world” there is a strong case for incorporating a sense of practicality into the subject: to frame it more in terms of problem-solving than simply learning the times tables, although such basics, several attendees pointed out, remain of vital importance.