Maths - Dread of numbers is damaging students

27th September 2013 at 01:00
Young people `frightened' of data miss out in life, report finds

The ability to analyse statistics is at the heart of life, from working out your chances of winning at the local casino to deciding which areas of a city need more police officers. But a major new report has suggested that the education system in England is instilling a fear of data in young people, ruling them out of increasing numbers of jobs and university courses.

The problem is not confined to maths, but extends to science, computing and economics, according to the Royal Statistical Society. "This is not a situation which is going to go away like some passing fashion," the society's report states. "Manifestly, we must provide people with the confidence and competence to work with data or we will watch our economy wither."

The report adds: "There are major implications for our education system. It must equip students for the world they will live and work in and currently this is not happening. Large numbers of young people are leaving school or college too frightened of numbers to engage with data."

The report, A World Full of Data, calls on the government to draw lessons from foreign countries where more students learn maths beyond the age of 16. It finds a strong case for introducing new maths courses to increase the number of young people in England taking the subject between the ages of 16 and 18.

In New Zealand, maths is not compulsory post-16 but 66 per cent of 17- year-olds and 40 per cent of 18-year-olds choose to take it at an advanced level, compared with just 13 per cent in England, according to research undertaken by the Nuffield Foundation (see figures, left).

The charity said that including statistics instead of calculus in advanced maths qualifications was "an important factor" in making the subject attractive in New Zealand because that increased its relevance to jobs and higher education.

The Royal Statistical Society report, meanwhile, looks at what universities and employers expect from students in 10 different subjects and what A levels deliver.

The report cites biology as a particular problem, saying that almost all university research in the subject involves statistical analysis so some undergraduates may struggle with the step up from A level. "The disparity would seem to be particularly great in biology and in large measure to derive from the differing perceptions of the role of statistics," it says.

The report's author Roger Porkess said that to improve students' abilities, A levels should do more to harness computing power and include more investigative work. Dropping coursework from some subjects had also taken away the opportunity to use statistics to answer wider questions and apply knowledge, he added.

Steve Brace, head of education and outdoor learning at the Royal Geographical Society, said: "We have argued very strongly for the reintroduction of coursework. (A-level geography) students had to do a 4,500-word project, which was in-depth and at-length research, which typically had a statistical element."

Education officials in England are working on a project to introduce new maths qualifications for students who have the minimum grade C at GCSE but who do not want to continue their studies with either an AS- or A-level course.

Mr Porkess told TES: "Ministers' view of maths is very limited. It is about a yellow brick road to university, but . they haven't squared up to why maths is so important for so many people."

A spokesman for the Department for Education said reforms to GCSEs and A levels would ensure they matched the best systems in the world. "All students will gain a thorough grounding in statistics and probability through the new maths GCSE syllabus, and we are strengthening the statistics content of other subjects such as geography and the sciences," he said.

Figure it out

Number of 17-year-olds studying maths:

Hong Kong - more than - 95%

Germany - more than - 90%

Massachusetts, US - more than - 84%

New Zealand - 71%

Singapore - 66%

Scotland - 48%

England - 20%

Source: Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics: Lessons from high-performing countries (2013), the Nuffield Foundation.

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