Top of the agenda

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Now maths really is for everyone, says Barry Lewis.

Economic history has a neat trick for determining the value of something - be it a product, an idea or even a process - just by conducting a "what if" analysis on the assumption that it hadn't been invented. Let's try it with maths.

What items of our world would disappear? Just about everything. Television: because no one would have developed the essential equations of electromagnetic radiation; banks, because no one would know how much wealth they had and they wouldn't be able to find its value - money would never have been invented. No dates, no time and no calendar; in fact, almost nothing of our civilisation would survive. We would inhabit a world in which we wandered around with no direction, surrounded by a fog of ignorance.

Maths plays such an important role in our lives that we frequently forget about it - ignoring the mathematical sophistication we have ourselves acquired and the maths constantly at work around us. The ancient Greeks were the supreme mathematicians but they were not what we would call "numerate" today. They proved, for instance, that the number of prime numbers was infinite and that there are just five regular solids. But they couldn't have worked out esily what 45 per cent of something was, nor would they have thought it important.

Maths is a means of looking at the patterns that make up our world and the intricate and beautiful ways in which they are constructed and realised; numeracy is the means of making that knowledge useful.

Maths and numeracy support each other. In a society based on knowledge and information they are vital parts of the infrastructure, and individuals who cannot draw on this resource will become more and more excluded, from employment and from an understanding of life today. Confidence and competence in maths may be the most important item on the social inclusion agenda for the new century. The powerful combination of the National Numeracy Strategy - to drive up standards and raise the competence and confidence of young children - and a celebration of maths in Maths Year 2000 recognises this mutual relationship and its awesome and enabling benefits. But this has to be for all - pupils, teachers, parents, employees, employers, and even government itself.

Let's get off to a flying start. Get involved in Maths Year 2000 and make a difference.

Barry Lewis is the director of Maths Year 2000. Tel: 020 7637 8800; E-mail:

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