Maths 'is not a plus'

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
MacBeath throws down a gauntlet to ministers as core subject heads for a major make-over

MATHS for all beyond S2 turns most pupils off, fails to relate to their lives and should be voluntary, Professor John MacBeath, one of the country's most distinguished researchers, claimed as ministers and the maths lobby swung behind a major subject make-over.

Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, called for a national focus on numeracy and maths, underlining the "excitement" involved. Maths was essential in securing a job and in daily survival, Mr Galbraith said at the launch of the Maths Year 2000 campaign on Monday .

However, Professor MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University and a contributor to a forthcoming book, Why Teach Maths? , questions compulsory maths up to fourth year in secondary, although he accepts numerical skills are essential.

He told The TES Scotland : "After S2, there is no strong argument for retaining maths as a compulsory part of the core curriculum. It's great for people who want to become mathematicians but for everybody to pursue maths beyond the point where it has got any utility is counter- productive. Maths has a very limited connection to young people growing up in Britain."

He added: "Let's look at the curriculum and the range of things people are trying to stuff into it. What are the core things young people still need at secondary level? Fine, let's have numeracy and literacy, but the connection between numeracy and maths later on in secondary is tenuous. Statistics is probably more useful than maths."

Professor MacBeath believed most pupils struggled with geomery, calculus and algebra and that there were probably 20 other areas of knowledge that would have an equal claim on the substantial amount of time absorbed by maths in the middle and upper secondary school.

He agreed "maths can be fun " but added: "Science can be fun and maybe has a stronger claim but all subjects can be fun ."

The Maths 2000 campaign was careful to stress the importance of basic numeracy and arithmetic, while not separating them from maths. Scott Keir, its co ordinator, said maths was "important, relevant and interesting" , even if people failed to realise how much they depended on an understanding of it.

"You need some maths knowledge in order to avoid being misled and to be streetwise," Mr Keir argued.

Professor Robin Knops of Heriot-Watt University, a member of the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences which is backing the campaign, accepted maths was often seen as "difficult and opaque " .

"But a proper mathematical training opens up other areas of every day life, as in scientific and commercial careers. Maths is not numeracy . It includes numeracy but maths is much more than that. It's learning about logical structures and the experience of that helps in any place where rational argument is required. Maths is good for abstract thinking and reasoning,"

Professor Knops said.

Barry Lewis, director of Maths 2000 south of the border, said the campaign was determined to reverse Britain's poor international and European showing in maths, evident for some 30 years. "We live in a mathematical world which shapes everything and if we do not have these skills, we will not prosper," Mr Lewis said.

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