A little maths goes long way

8th August 2003 at 01:00
Bright GCSE maths candidates of today cannot do the long-division and multiplication their parents dashed off during the 11-plus, judging by the Channel 4 series That'll Teach 'em.

Does it really matter? Some celebrated scientists of old could not do their sums. Alexander Pope observed: "Sir Isaac Newton, though so deep in algebra and fluxions, could not readily make up a common account, and whilst he was Master of the Mint, used to get someone to make up the accounts for him."

But then poor old Newton almost got done for corruption after trusting his accountants too much.

Like Sir Isaac, we all need maths to survive in the real world. Systems that control our lives are grounded in maths. We need to avoid being cheated when exchanging pounds for our holiday euros. And what do politicians mean when they talk of "the average"? Is it the mean, median or mode?

The Government's independent maths inquiry this week suggests a sensible rationing of maths from 14 to 18. Everyone would do a vocational "maths for citizenship" course at 14, with options for those wanting wider understanding. As pupils progress, the maths would be tailored to meet their needs. The model may not be perfect but the sentiments are right. We need maths but we do not all need to be mathematicians. The maths A-level proposed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (page 1) recognises a need to remove some of the more specialist applied maths from syllabuses if schools are to stop the exodus from the exam - entries for it have dropped by a fifth since 2001.

But it is questionable even how much engineers, scientists and doctors need to know. Research by Richard Noss of London University Institute of Education suggests that qualified engineers use only 5 per cent of what they are taught at university.

The Greeks were strict about entry to the Academy. Plato said: "Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here." It is a laudable sentiment that can be taken too far.

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