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Laura Kounine and Elizabeth Truss: The lost mathematicians

Elizabeth_trussLaura_kounineLaura Kounine and Elizabeth Truss, Reform’s Education Researcher and Deputy Director, highlight the cost to the country of our desperate lack of mathematicians - as documented in their new report.

It is socially acceptable, cool even, to claim that you are “no good at maths” whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. This culture is endemic in Britain, pervading politics and the media. Years of reduction in examination standards and teaching to the test from the early 1980s onwards has served to increase the perception that maths is boring, difficult and geeky. The economic results are now emerging. Fifty percent of UK employers are dissatisfied with the basic numeracy of school leavers.  There is also a massive gap being created in high level mathematics, with City firms disproportionately recruiting non-UK graduates. This, as Michael Gove has recognised, has significant implications for the wider economy: mathematics is vital for economic growth. 

The modern economy is a “maths economy” in which mathematical skills drive value in industries from energy to financial services. The new “Masters of the Universe” in the City are no longer traders doing deals; they are the “power mathematicians” who model future trends. Yet, despite this country’s strong record of producing Nobel prizewinners and Fields medalists, the UK is under threat from new competitors entering this market.

The proportion of students studying A-level maths has dropped since 1989, a lost generation turned off by the new style of examinations and teaching. There has been a total reduction of 440,000 taking A-level since then, despite an ability for maths A-level to improve an individual’s income by ten percent. This lost generation has cost the British economy £9bn. 

In an attempt to address the failed progressive teaching methods of the 1960s and 1970s there has been a “tightening Gordian knot of political control” over mathematics. Exams have become less stretching partly because of efforts to make them more “relevant” to the modern workplace and partly to show results have improved.  But ironically, it is not work related problems that are critical – it is the core techniques of logical thinking and problem solving that are especially valuable in the modern economy.  By adopting a “pick and mix” approach where pupils cover many subjects at a shallow level, pupils are not acquiring the basic toolkit to progress to the next level. They are not tackling the difficult challenge that can lead to the “eureka” moment and generate an excitement about mathematics.

So what must be done?  The report argues that rigour should be restored to maths education by complete independence of the examination system and a reversal of the trend towards modularisation.  A “new Alexander” is required to cut the Gordian knot of political control that has made Government rather than pupils and teachers responsible for results. Further – as Michael Gove has also put forward – more rigorous qualifications, such as the IGCSE, must be available to students in the state sector: 

The Conservatives should seize the opportunity to push forward radical reforms that they have already been advocating – such as real school choice, more scope to vary teachers pay and rigorous qualifications – in order to end the three key causes of the problem: a lack of leadership from the discipline, misguided interference from successive governments and, most importantly, a basic lack of understanding in modern culture of the value of mathematics.

This is vital if the UK economy is to succeed in the battle of the maths economy.


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