Maths, the glamour profession?;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
WE NEED to make mathematics glamorous. Fractals are in their own way, quite sexy; but you do have to know quite a lot to appreciate them. More of us have to be better at it, or we risk falling into an economic black hole; Britain cannot depend on an endless supply of East African Asian prodigies to do its sums for ever.

We all need to know more maths if we are to work out what, or whom to vote for; politicians should not be able to tell voters that BSE or genetically modified organisms are just too difficult to understand. Unfortunately, scientific truth is complex, debatable and still demands judgment from the citizen; if you haven't got the tools to make the judgment, you are effectively disenfranchised. Soon you could be unemployable.

A start would be a campaign to get us to confront just how poor we are with numbers. A member of Parliament told me last week that though Britain's self-esteem in the area of maths was relatively high the truth is that in international terms we're among the duffers in the achievement league.

Maths is the new lingua franca of commerce, of business, even journalism. Unfortunately, few of us can speak it or its close cousin, scientific method.

No wonder then that we credulously consume acres of rubbish about genetically modified organisms ; abroad last week, I was astonished at the national panic over scientific work which had yet to be properly written up, never mind subjected to proper peer review. A better-educated nation might have been calmer.

But we are intimidated by science and maths. Read the House of Commons' debates on cloning or BSE if you want to be convinced.

That is no doubt why employers, as revealed in last week's TES, are ready, even desperate, to pay extra for holders of A-level maths. These people may never have to solve an equation, or carry out a partial differentiation in their lives; but they will probably have to weigh up the results provided by someone who has.

In my own business, journalism, it is not only in the reporting of purely scientific matters that the gap shows; any teacher will tell you that one of the reasons that school league tables have been so misleading is that most of us cannot distinguish between the different kinds of evaluation that points scores represent.

The second-order calculation that we now call improvement is virtually beyond the grasp of all but the specialists. Yet to make proper judgments we have to learn how to handle such information. The question underlying the Centre for Economic Performance's work is whether everyone should be forced to do maths to a higher level, though not necessarily A-level.

The researchers conclude that a lower-level qualification would not help. The evidence in my experience is that even those of us with science degrees need to know more rather than less. So how can we make mathematics more inspiring?

In my day, one great motivator used to be what was called the school journey. But a week spent clambering over rocks by the seaside has been replaced by something altogether more ambitious.

Adventure and leadership programmes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Awards and Operation Raleigh take students to the other side of the world; and I recently visited a school where last year's school journey was a trip to a West African slave fort.

Though doubtless more expensive than in the past, the school trip seems to have survived the ravages of education cuts. No doubt children gain from the change in perspective; which is why it is a shame that, as far as I know, there is no equivalent exercise for the study of mathematics.

Perhaps we need a couple of days at the Stock Exchange, a week at the Cheltenham races - or even a trip to Las Vegas, where a night in the casino will teach you all you need to know about probability and risk. Whatever the answer, we know what the problem is, and for a generation the clock is already saying "too late".

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