An attitude problem on the figures front

25th May 2007 at 01:00
Yojana Sharma is a Journalist

Gordon Brown wants a more numerate population and for pupils' maths ability to match competitors such as India and China. But there may be a way to go yet.

According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the level of maths taught in schools is letting us down. The society knows this because it posted on its website a solid (3D) geometry puzzle from China's university entrance exam and invited people to solve it. But this task, which is routine for China's 18-year-olds, presents a huge challenge for British teenagers.

Some 60,000 looked at the puzzle and it was the most clicked-on BBC story for two days. About 2,000 people worldwide sent solutions, half of which were right. Not many were students, but that's still a lot of people doing advanced maths just for fun.

Meanwhile, in this country, teenagers drop maths at 16 because the A-level is seen as too hard and schools, wanting to preserve their league table positions, advise them against "difficult" subjects, even if they might later need them at university.

But perhaps the puzzle was unfair. Solid geometry is on the Chinese syllabus, but does not figure in A-level maths.

The society did not conduct a scientific study comparing Chinese and British maths pupils. China has not taken part in the Programme for International Student Assessment or the Trends in International Maths and Science Study, international comparisons that measure maths skills at 15.

So it is hard to say how good Chinese pupils are. But those who want to go on to university are certainly more motivated - and they have to be. A single exam for university entrance decides their future and maths is a compulsory component whether they want to study engineering or Chinese literature.

Rote learning is the favoured method of acquiring maths skills in China.

Teachers in this country say that a good A-level student with a couple of lessons in solid geometry could resolve the Chinese puzzle. Whether a Chinese pupil could easily tackle a puzzle they have not been drilled on is another question.

In this country, maths content is constantly being rejigged to cater to a wider range of abilities, while in China the race to become world class means that maths becomes harder. Motivation also counts. What options are there for Chinese school leavers who do not study science, engineering or business and finance, which all require a significant level of numeracy? Too often in the UK, pupils drop maths because they cannot see the need for it.

It is not simply our maths that is letting us down, it is our attitude.

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