Do we have a numerate workforce? I’m afraid it is far too obvious the answer is no. I’m not just talking about the relatively low numbers of students taking maths A level, as detailed here in the recent Royal Society report on the transition to HE, but a much lower level of general numeracy allowing people to use the calculations they need to make their way through life: making sense of interest rates and mortgage repayments; working out how far their pay will stretch when it comes to thinking about a summer holiday; or, for a builder or dress designer, working out how much material they need to complete a job. Not exactly rocket science, not needing calculus or complex numbers, just confidence to manipulate a few figures and possibly the odd formula.
A few months ago, my fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry wrote a plea for maths A level to be seen as a necessary prerequisite for entry to biological HE courses, and followed this up with an opinion piece in the THE. Both these pieces stimulated a huge amount of discussion, predominantly supporting the idea. These ideas are relevant to the more skilled part of our population, those who are going on to science in higher education. For the population at large the problems are different and even more fundamental. This week saw the publication of a report (downloadable from here) on maths education more broadly by a group led by Carol Vorderman and commissioned by Michael Gove and David Cameron when in opposition, but likely to be all the more influential now that they are in Government. It is a report which is well worth reading in full, because it is full of sensible suggestions about how to make all our school-children functionally numerate and what could be done to break the current vicious circle our maths education finds itself in. Its messages are closely aligned with other recent reports including the Royal Society one I allude to above, and one launched in June by ACME (the Advisory Council on Maths Education).
The key recommendations from the Vorderman report are clear, and the one that the media homed in on is one of the most important: with the school leaving age being raised, everyone should continue with some form of maths education until they leave school. What form that should take will depend on ability and future aspirations, it most certainly cannot be one-size-fits-all (as unfortunately the current GCSE essentially is). Currently, as cited in the Vorderman report, we have a cohort of school children more than half of whom cannot correctly work out what the sum 1/2 + 1/4 equals. The most common mistake is an answer of 2/6, showing a complete lack of understanding of what fractions are all about. I would hazard a guess that give a child an apple cut up appropriately, and a far higher proportion would instantly grasp what the correct answer was, so it is to a large extent an ability to deal with the abstraction of an equation that is missing.
That these children leave school with skills so woeful that they will be let down by them in almost any job is not going to help this country out of the economic straits it’s in. There is an interesting commentary in the Vorderman report giving information provided by the Fashion Retail Academy, not – you might think – an obvious place for lack of maths skills to be a problem. But inevitably it is. Ranging from working out the necessary square metre space in stores to calculations of percentages in profits and sales reductions, anyone in the retail industry will face the same problems. School-leavers may fancy a career in fashion is all about clothes so who cares about the maths, but they’d be very, very wrong.
To take another part of the landscape, if someone wants to train to be a primary school teacher, all they need is a grade C at Maths GCSE (which can in fact be obtained even from the lower tier exams). After that, they might get a tiny bit of training in teaching arithmetic in their ITT (initial teacher training), but there isn’t room for much in that crowded curriculum, so essentially their numeracy skills will remain – optimistically – at that GCSE level. In many cases they may forget much of what they knew, and they are likely to lack confidence (not unreasonably) that they have a firm enough grasp of the concepts they need to teach maths/arithmetic even to young children, perhaps particularly to young children. But teach it they must. Somehow they are supposed to know enough to put the next generation of school children’s understanding onto a firm footing. Inevitably many of them find this dreadfully hard, but too often there is no one to turn to for advice. Putting a specialist maths teacher into every primary school would help; ensuring a higher degree of confidence in their own abilities in every teacher’s mind would be even better. If post-16 maths education (with different strands for different end-points) were mandatory to help students retain what they have already learnt through more practice with basic number-handling skills or stretching them a bit further, then for the primary school teachers of tomorrow just as much as for those going on into degrees in history, business and other non-STEM subjects, there would be clear benefits. This might also go some way to solve Stephen’s identified problem of biologists entering university with inadequate maths skills.
However, for all its sensible suggestions it may, as previous similar reports have done, end up simply gathering dust on the shelf. Mike Baker, the BBC’s Education specialist reporter said on his blog
However we have been here before. Sir Mike Tomlinson warned years ago that GCSE maths and English failed to provide functional numeracy and literacy. The subsequent reforms for Diplomas, and the associated requirement that all pupils needed to pass at Functional Skills to gain the Diploma, would have sorted out this problem. But the current government has allowed the Diplomas to wither on the vine.
Nevertheless, there is an opportunity for something radical to be done which could solve a number of problems: for STEM departments in HE where we aren’t impressed by the skills incoming students have; adequate support of those schoolchildren who find maths difficult and for whom the current system is letting them down as they enter the workforce; and those of employers who are frustrated that their workforce are so ill-prepared for the tasks they need to complete. The one thing that perhaps makes me marginally optimistic is the comment Michael Gove made to me before his recent speech at the Royal Society. He said that, as he had been educated in Aberdeen and gone through the Scottish Highers system, he appreciated the fact that he had taken maths at Higher level and felt the breadth of education he had obtained was very important. Indeed, the very fact he had come to the Royal Society to talk about education in STEM subjects was in itself a very positive message. But I, as no doubt many of you, will be watching this space to see what actually transpires.