The problem with maths;Basic skills

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Britain lags behind many countries in numeracy. Schools needing help are going out to find it themselves and companies are dealing direct with teachers. Anne Nicholls reports

Carol Vorderman may have done for mathematics what Miramax films did for Shakespeare, but the subject still has a trainspotter image. The problem is that many perceive maths as difficult, boring, irrelevant and slightly nerdish. Anyone who has struggled with the intricacies of algebraic formulae, the mysteries of calculus or the relationship of North American Indian squaws to Pythagoras' theorem, will understand these sentiments.

Nor are we very good at the subject. One in five adults in England and Wales has very poor levels of numeracy, and four out of ten 11-year-olds failed to reach the standards expected for their age in last year's key stage 2 maths tests, according to the Basic Skills Agency.

We also fare badly in international comparisons. A survey commissioned by the agency in 1997 compared how well adults in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the UK handle basic tasks (such as simple calculations involving percentages and fractions). The UK sample answered fewer questions correctly than adults in any of the other countries.

In the much larger Third International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995, England's nine-year-olds ranked tenth out of 17 in maths, behind most of the countries in the Pacific rim, Australia, Canada, Ireland and many in Eastern Europe. It is small consolation that we were ahead of countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Romania. The only aspects of maths in which Britain scored better than average were data representation, analysis and probability.

This sad state of affairs is something that the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications wants to turn around; hence, the launch last month of the Maths@Work initiative. Research by the institute has shown that one reason for a declining appreciation of the importance of maths beyond GCSE is because young people have not had its practical use in employment explained to them. The Maths@Work drive wants its target group, 13 to 15-year-olds (Years 8 and 9), to understand the relevance of maths to their careers and their potential earning power and how it can support the national economy.

"We are not attempting to create a race of super mathematicians, but to stimulate greater understanding of the use of maths at all levels and in all kinds of employment," says John Lardge of the Maths@Work programme. "We want to convey the idea that maths has a value in the lives and careers of young people. At the moment, there is no means of explaining how maths benefits them when they get into employment. Teachers have a lot of issues to cover in the curriculum, but no one has really thought about giving them information on how maths is used in the business world."

To spread the message, roadshows are planned, plus a 30-minute video, a careers CD-Rom for every secondary school and an Internet site. The initiative is backed by the Department of Trade and Industry and several companies. "Government and industry recognises that maths is a critically valuable skill in the continuing success of the economy and our competitiveness," says Mr Lardge. "Young people with maths qualifications tend to earn more and have better long-term prospects than those who don't, even when they do not intend to pursue maths as the main feature of their career."

This is borne out by research released in February from the London School of Economics, which shows that people with A-level maths go on to earn significantly more than their peers with equivalent qualifications in different subjects. This is not because higher ability students were more likely to study maths: those who only scraped a grade E pass still enjoyed a higher income later in life. There is also the argument that financially-based careers (accountancy, banking, share dealing) attract higher salaries, so having mathematical skills is clearly an asset.

In most cases, employers are not looking for super mathematicians. "It's the logical approach of maths that is such an important transferable skill in employment, as it enables people to break down a problem into its constituent parts to arrive at a collective solution," says Bob Rogers, business manager for lifelong learning at Oracle UK.

The Basic Skills Agency research indicates that having poor basic skills in numeracy is a severe handicap in the world of work. In its report Does Numeracy Matter?, which examines the impact of poor numeracy on adult life, this message is spelt out clearly, squashing the belief that numeracy is not a prerequisite for many jobs.

Employer surveys support this. A study carried out for the (then) Institute for Manpower Studies found that only one in eight jobs did not require any numeracy skills. As well as obvious employment sectors such as finance, computing and engineering, others requiring a reasonable level of competence in numeracy include marketing, building, nursing and administration work.

In the 1996 Skills Audit by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), member companies were asked to comment on the levels of competence of school-leavers and graduates in six key skills areas. In practical numeracy, only 1 per cent of school leavers had "excellent" skills and 43 per cent had "poor" skills. Graduates from further and higher education were better: 13 per cent had "excellent" skills and two-thirds were "adequate", but 13 per cent rated as "poor".

Margaret Murray, head of education at the CBI, says: "Numeracy is essential as a key skill for work. Employers rate it highly and we have been championing it for the past 10 years. The survey shows that most school leavers have inadequate skills in numeracy, and that employers have difficulties recruiting 16 to 18-year-olds as a result."

School-leavers who understand how to apply maths in the workplace are certainly more attractive to prospective employers, says John Rivers, director of human resources at Rolls-Royce. "The more people we can employ with these skills, the more competitive we are as an organisation."

Lynn Churchman, principal officer in mathematics at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, emphasises the importance of teaching in real contexts. "Maths techniques should be taught in a way that encourages students to see their relevance. Teachers need to get pupils to tune in to how it fits into everyday life," she says.

One way of teaching about the relevance of percentages is to get pupils to scan through newspapers to find examples. Another approach is to use maths in cross-curriculum projects relating to real business. Whitbread, for example, runs projects based on Pizza Hut which require pupils to calculate real costs and prices.

Johnny Ball, the TV presenter best known for making maths for children fun, says that one reason why maths is perceived as boring is because too much time is spent on statistics. "We have been teaching the wrong sort of maths. Instead, what we need to teach is how maths is linked to other areas, like art and biology. The kind of maths that dictates how a ball flies through the air, or a planet through space, is so much more interesting than just numeracy. Understanding how plants grow and multiply - that's maths as well. Spatial awareness needs to be sewn into art, which is all about proportions and shapes. It's lovely. But it's not the maths they are teaching in the curriculum."

The Maths@Work initiative dovetails with the Government's Maths Year 2000 programme. The intention is for every youngster to have a daily maths lesson, similar to the literacy hour, for up to an hour a day, starting from September.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, wants to bring a sea change in maths teaching and learning. "Too many people in Britain say, almost with a badge of pride, that they never did understand maths properly. Yet it is essential in everyday life and to the life of our economy - from checking the supermarket bill to understanding the books in a small business," he says. "Dealing with figures should be as important as the ability to read, yet maths is sometimes the poor relation."

The maths drive will have an emphasis on mental arithmetic with pupils learning their times tables. Mr Ball says: "Primary school kids are happy to learn by rote up to a point, but only if they are moved on and given a challenge. You must move forward or boredom will set in. We need to be more ambitious with maths."

Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, 16 Charles II Street, London SW1 4QU. Tel: 0171 839 2555

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