This innumerate isle

17th September 2004 at 01:00
The English revel in being dreadful at maths, says Jorj Kowsun. No wonder the subject is in crisis

A group of arts academics from England and Poland are at a conference together and during a coffee break the discussion turns to mathematics.

"Oh, I can't do maths to save my life!" says an English academic - and the others laugh in sympathy.

But the Poles sit stony-faced, clearly shocked. "What?" asks a member of the English group, realising some kind of faux pas has been made. A Pole replies: "We are very surprised to hear you make such an admission in public. I have to say it is very embarrassing."

It then has to be explained to the Poles that admitting you are weak at maths in English society is a very acceptable thing to do and even makes you sound like a "good egg". The Poles point out that in Poland it is not unlike admitting that you don't know how to read.

English cultural attitudes limit our ability to raise standards and expectations of mathematics education - and they are peculiarly English rather than British. Those who are good at maths are, of course, admired in English society but they are also treated with considerable suspicion.

Outside those areas of work in which mathematics is clearly important, such as insurance and engineering, the impact of our cultural attitudes on business are serious. The sophistication of the analysis that managers apply to business problems is limited. But proposing that a little mathematical thinking might raise their game is seen as rather odd.

It is perhaps partly down to the macho attitude that dogs English business: the idea that there is something sissy about actually thinking about a problem as opposed to hitting it with a big stick. The impact on young people of these attitudes is the perception that it is safer not to be good at maths. It ensures being one of the crowd and not some kind of "boffin".

The final report of Adrian Smith's inquiry into post-14 maths education, published in February, makes an excellent case for championing maths in England. It covers: the importance of the subject; the shortage of teachers and the need for better support for the teaching and learning of maths.

All the key issues, in fact, except for one: the national cultural bias against maths.

The nearest the Smith Report comes to it is in recommendation 1.3, which proposes an Advisory Committee for Mathematics that would "speak on behalf of the community on general strategic issues concerning mathematics".

The title of the Smith Report, Making Mathematics Count is a reference to Bill Cockroft's report Mathematics Counts published in 1982. But 22 years on, the problems in mathematics education have worsened, not improved. Dire predictions made then about such things as shortages of maths teachers are now coming to pass.

Implementation of the Smith report needs to be coupled with a carefully-orchestrated campaign to change attitudes to maths.

Improvements in the mathematics classroom can easily be undone by a few thoughtless remarks made by a teacher of another subject, reinforcing the usual negative attitudes.

Of course other teachers are not deliberately undermining the work of their maths colleagues. Often their comments spring from negative personal experiences of maths learning that have left psychological scars. Whatever the cause, however, tackling this kind of negative discourse is an important starting point.

Cultural change can be achieved. We have taken great steps forward in national discourse about equality and diversity. This suggest that an equal opportunities model for maths education can be developed - based on the principle that to undermine a young person's mathematical learning is to deny them equality of access to developmental opportunities.

In the same way as we develop whole-school and whole-college policies for tackling discrimination we should develop policies and strategies for tackling negative attitudes to maths.

The first chapter of the Smith Report is headed "The importance of mathematics." It seems strange that a public document of this kind needs to spell out why maths is important to our economy - of course it is, but remarkably few of us seem to realise it.

Jorj Kowszun worked in economic intelligence at the Bank of England before retraining as a teacher. Until recently he was deputy principal of a large further education college. He now runs his own consultancy business Subject Focus: Maths TES Teacher

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