We can improve the country's maths skills—if schools are given political spaceby Jay Elwes / February 25, 2016 / Leave a comment
Prospect’s roundtable event on Britain’s maths problem. ©Keith Leon, Prospect Read more: Dyscalculia—more than just a block 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. An example of a more practical approach was given by one attendee, who described a teaching technique that is used in Japanese schools. Children were shown a series of empty bottles—and then another bottle, filled to its capacity of 1.6 litres. How many times would this 1.6 litre bottle need to be filled and poured in order to fill up the other bottles? The children were set this problem and left to discuss it among themselves. The teacher gave no guidance. At the end of the lesson, the teacher did not give the answer, which was only revealed in the next class. It was a striking example of an approach that differs sharply from British methods. In maths teaching there is a balance to be struck between the conceptual and the practical. The Japanese example shows the power of presenting maths to students in a more practical way. British teaching methods have improved a great deal since the introduction of the National Curriculum and the poor standards of the 1980s are long past, in maths and other subjects. One longstanding educational expert remembered visiting a school at the time, to be told that “maths is very hard, so we only teach it to the children once a week.” Improved training standards have made a great difference to teaching levels, though several of those present said that reductions in funding since 2010 had checked progress. What should be done to make Britain better at maths? Some of the answers suggested by the group were expected: put more emphasis on learning basics such as times tables; put more money into training; fight the “talent myth,” that maths is only for the few; and incentivise teachers more, linking pay to further qualifications. Other suggestions were less conventional—it was pointed out that Britain has one of the most influential computer games industries in the world, and it should do more to promote maths. More online teaching resources should be developed, a suggestion that mirrors the growing popularity of online university learning programmes. One contributor stressed the importance of analysing the coherence of teaching policy, to make sure that good policies have a chance of achieving success. There should also be a greater drive to involve parents and employers in the debate over mathematics teaching, which should not shy away from the quality of teachers’ own education. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of primary maths teachers are struggling and that much early stage maths is taught by non-specialists. If Britain fails to confront the maths problem, then a negative feedback loop will take hold, where poor levels of attainment lead to a diminishing supply of maths teachers, which puts further downward pressure on future attainment. And here the discussion turned to politics, and to the point that improvements to teaching systems can take many years to show results. It is vital that the political space is given to allow recent improvements to take hold. This is a subject to which Prospect will return in future.