Adolescence minus maths = happiness

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
On reading that Terry Bladen wished to make GCSE maths optional, my first reaction was: he would, wouldn't he? Mr Bladen, president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is himself a maths teacher and would like his classes made up of pupils "who actually enjoy and want to pursue the subject". Teachers of other subjects would no doubt wish for the same. Mr Bladen just wants to get rid of the awkward squad.

But my second thoughts were more sympathetic. Come to think of it, I am not sure exactly why maths has to be compulsory at GCSE. English, yes: reading, writing, speaking and listening are skills that develop as people grow older. I can see an argument for making history compulsory at GCSE:it is hard for even bright young children to grasp history as anything more than narrative; as teenagers, they learn to exploit it as a tool for understanding the world we live in. Something similar could be said of geography and religion. All these subjects - science, rightly compulsory at GCSE, is another - are ones in which most people continue widening and deepening their knowledge throughout life, whether or not they are in formal education; to drop them at 14 is to drop them at the moment the child starts to get permanent benefit.

But maths? Most people reach a ceiling at which their understanding fails: beyond that, all is darkness. To change the metaphor, learning maths is like swimming alongside a shark: one minute you're going along quite happily, the next there is blood all over the water. The shark turned on me midway through A-level maths; I duly failed. Now I can remember nothing about it, or about O-level maths. Indeed, I believe that I learned all the maths I would ever use before 14.

Consider how many flock to museums, watch TV science programmes and read novels. But there will never be a cable TV maths channel. Maths is a dead end: fewer than half the pupils taking GCSE are likely to go on to university maths, or engineering courses or any others that make direct use of all those equations. Of the remainder, some will be gobbled up by the shark before they get to GCSE, but most will go through the motions, as I did, without learning anything useful or memorable.

I know that we want children to keep their options open, that we wish to bridge the "two cultures" and that we do not want to separate the academic and the non-academic. But the price - thousands of bored teenagers wasting time in maths lessons - may be too high. I would reinforce useful, everyday maths: percentages, measurement and so on. I would try to make pupils numerate in the same sense we try to make them literate - which is not by teaching them progressively more technical linguistics. I would teach about risk, so they understand the difference between Sars, from which only a few hundred have died, and flu, which kills 500,000 a year.

I would cover statistics, so that they can make sense of school league tables and learn to doubt government economic data. I would make them study bank accounts, pension schemes, shares and credit cards; the financial services industry makes huge profits out of popular ignorance of such things. (In fact, the experimental certificate in financial studies, reported in last week's TES, probably ought to become compulsory.) So, yes, I would leave Mr Bladen in peace and, if children so wish it, spare them his dreary and pointless subject.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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