Posted on 1 April, 2016 by Richard Grazier

Maths for life – is compulsory education the best solution?

Maths syllabuses and pedagogy are continuously scrutinised by governments, parents and businesses, with criticisms across the board. Whilst most would agree that a good quality maths education is essential for all children – there are conflicts of opposites about how this should be delivered to ensure students understand the benefits of maths.

Governments are considering options to make all pupils study maths to the age of 18 as a way of improving maths skills and results, following the footsteps of a number of European countries. A proposal was announced in the UK by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, in the latest budget statement. The Chancellor told the Commons: “It’s the single most important thing we can do to boost the long-term productivity of our economy.”

This is not the first time compulsory maths post-16 has been suggested; but the proposal is a resurrection of the core maths initiative of 2014. At that time Pamoja was set to deliver a pilot scheme to a large number of 16 to 18 year olds but in the end the government decided to go in a different direction, two years on and thinking has gone full-circle.

The Chancellor’s latest call was welcomed by prominent mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, but critics are already claiming it is “undeliverable” due to the global shortage of maths teachers. It has been suggested that 20 percent of maths lessons in the UK are currently taught by teachers without post-A-level maths qualifications. Under-qualified teachers, growing recruitment and inevitably retention difficulties, and a call to increase the number of lessons that need to be delivered, present a serious concern to schools as they attempt to deliver a consistent high quality maths education with less and less resources, specifically human.

The government believes that making maths compulsory in further education is a critical factor in achieving universal participation in basic mathematics.  But research from the Nuffield Foundation shows this it will not improve participation in advanced mathematics.  We need to look further than simply extending the length of time maths is studied, and assess how and what students should be taught, if they are to fully grasp the mathematical skills they need to flourish in later life.

The latest Pisa tests, from 2013, put England in 26th place for maths, and the USA in 36th place, behind countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

Last weekend, international education expert Andreas Schleicher, addressed the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, described what was lacking in maths teaching: “One of the things that we see when you look at high-performing education systems in maths, they typically have three things in the curriculum; one is rigour, the second is focus and the third is coherence.”

Shanghai’s students are almost three years ahead of the average UK student; however this level of achievement doesn’t offer a true representation of the success of the country’s maths pedagogy. China’s culture lends itself to rote learning, a memorisation technique based on repetition. Whilst many educators claim that the country’s success in maths attainment stems from this cultural style of teaching and learning, and not from the country’s educational methodology, it is more likely that the findings of another study, conducted by OECD, which discovered that 71 percent of Chinese students use after-school maths tutoring is the main reason (for comparison, in Canada this figure is 27 percent).

Despite the fact that this way of learning keeps China’s students at the top of international league tables, the country is looking to incorporate western teaching methods and curricula, where self-paced knowledge acquisition, reflection and collaboration are the heartbeat of the process, and more importantly the methods place the learner at the centre. Education experts in China understand the importance of a well-rounded education and the advantage of linking what students learn in the classroom to what is going on around them, highlighting to students why there is a value in understanding, remembering, and utilising this knowledge – this attitude is fundamental for maths success around the world.

In the USA, the Common Core maths curriculum– a set of grade-level standards– is designed to give some uniformity to the country’s state and local education systems, and to support teaching methods that emphasise understanding alongside rote learning. The current league tables show the USA is drastically behind other countries in maths, but these tests do not go as far as measuring levels of comprehension. If curricula around the world are to develop in line with the global needs of society, I believe that it will become more important for students to learn how to apply what they have learned in subject lessons at school, to their careers, and to the ever-evolving world around them, understanding each and every learning moment.

Maths is everywhere, and the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century; vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The value of maths and quantitative skills has shown that countries will profit in many areas from a stronger mathematically-capable workforce. From the ability to fully harness the philanthropic and economic benefits of big data, to being able to critique and challenge politicians’ use of statistics, or simply to balance a household budget, improving maths capability should be a priority for all sections of society, according to The British Academy’s report ‘Count Us In’.

Employers often cite numeracy as an area where there is a real skills gap for school-leavers. While this is undoubtedly true in the UK, considering the slipping Pisa position, there must also be recognition from business and government that maths skills can, and often should, be taught outside of the traditional school routes. For employers to expect new recruits to excel in every area of mathematical application is asking a lot of the education system, so why shouldn’t businesses teach the bespoke maths skills they require and, by doing so, engage new recruits so that they can be successful in life and the workplace?

Most students who ‘dislike’ maths do not understand its connection to their lives and do badly in examinations, even as the questions grow easier. What is needed is a curriculum that develops inquiry and self-reflection skills, so that students can own their future, and are developed with the skills required for higher education and work.

← Back to Blog