Read more: Why are we so bad at maths?
In April, I was interviewed on Sky News about a project to improve teenagers’ GCSE maths results by teaching them more “real-world” maths. Disappointingly for the presenter, my co-interviewee and I agreed with each other. Making maths relevant to real life was, we both said, a good thing. A very good thing. No controversy. Good for education. Bad, perhaps, for broadcasting.
There is, however, a big debate about the maths that children should learn and how much of it should be “real-world.” The project we were discussing involves 10,000 pupils taking part in an evaluation of Young Enterprise’s Maths in Context programme. This concentrates on GCSE maths problems in everyday, largely financial, situations: for example, comparing different mobile phone tariffs or savings policies with varying rates of interest, working out the real costs of running a car, or borrowing money to go on holiday.
Not only does this provide valuable life lessons in money management, but the problems also cover essential parts of the maths curriculum and perhaps even offer light-bulb moments, when students realise that maths might actually have its uses outside school.
Children often find these practical maths questions harder than the pure maths of simply doing a calculation or solving an equation, which is why they need extra practice. Up to a third of GCSE maths questions are framed within a practical/financial context and students tend to do less well on these questions than on others.
It’s not difficult to work out why. With real-life maths, they can’t just apply techniques learnt by rote. Instead they have to understand the problem, work out what maths is needed, do the maths, turn it back into a real-life answer and check that it makes real-life sense (at least roughly—in the real world, a lot of what we do requires estimation rather than precision).
But although a great idea, Maths in Context is limited by the parameters of GCSE. If up to a third of the GCSE exam comprises practical real-life problems, then two-thirds doesn’t. It is primarily an academic course and a good foundation for advanced maths and other STEM subjects. But it may be an unsatisfactory option for teenagers who hate the subject, have had a rotten experience of maths throughout school and who will struggle to get an A*-C pass (this grading system is changing).
The new maths GCSE, taught since September, has over one and a half times more content than the syllabus it replaced; ministers wanted it to be deeper, broader and more “rigorous.” For schools, that means more work and greater league-table credit, while for the kids it means more work but, if they’re counting passes, still just one subject under their belts.
When Simon Jenkins, the Guardian columnist, argues that maths is the new Latin and completely pointless to most people, he may attract the wrath of virtually the entire maths community, but he does have a point. And it’s one shared by the American political scientist Andrew Hacker who has designed an adult arithmetic course for his students, with no algebra, geometry or calculus, and who argues against the need for full maths for all high-school students.
What we (wearing my hat as a trustee of the charity National Numeracy) have suggested is that there should be two courses. The first would be an academic GCSE, which many, if not most, young people would continue to take and which would ensure a good flow-through into STEM careers. The second would be practical maths, a course to cover everyday problems that all young people would take. (Think about the separate purposes of GCSE English Literature and English Language.) This is not dumbing down. If practical maths were taught (well) throughout school, more children might actually get to enjoy the subject and opt to do both courses later on.
Although around two-thirds of teenagers have been getting a GCSE grade C or higher in recent years, less than a quarter of young people are at the same level when assessed on everyday maths skills (see the government’s Skills for Life survey, 2011) and Britain is the only country where young people do slightly worse at maths than older people, according to the OECD.
There is one glimmer of hope: the current review of Functional Skills qualifications. These aim to provide students with practical skills to enable them to function in the real world. They are offered as a GCSE-alternative in further education and have been around for a while in various guises. But they have never really attracted the respect they deserve from employers, who still tend to regard GCSE as the standard. The review aims to improve the qualifications and their reputation.
National Numeracy is contributing to the review. We’ve put forward our own model of the maths needed for life—the Essentials of Numeracy—and our own assessment, the National Numeracy Challenge, which allows anyone to test their own practical maths skills, whether or not they’ve got a GCSE. We wish the Functional Skills review well. But we’d like to see something like it prominent in schools too. Practical maths shouldn’t be seen as a second-rate alternative for those who don’t make the grade at GCSE.
Now read: How to make Britain numerate again