Who needs mental arithmetic?

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Am I the only one who is puzzled by the almost universal belief in the importance of ensuring that the next generation of young people are able to add up and multiply in their heads? As far as I can tell, the only people who will ever find a use for these skills are potential contestants on Countdown.

It wasn't their training in mental arithmetic that enabled shop assistants to work out the cost of a 51 yards of material at 61p a yard; it was their ability to use ready reckoners.

Looking through rose-tinted spectacles at a past that never was in order to provide young people with the skills they will need in the next century is a recipe for disaster. Today's ready reckoners are bar code readers and iconised till keys. All checkout assistants and waiters need to be able to do is count out the change for customers not using plastic. And even that skill will be rendered redundant if and when loaded cash cards replace coins of the realm. Throwing up arms in horror because most young people can't do the simple calculations that we were taught to do is not good enough. How often do we still do those calculations?

Much has been made of our poor showing in international comparisons, particularly in relation to the countries of south-east Asia.

The implicit assumption behind these comparisons has been that there was a strong causal link between the economic success that these countries had and the mathematics education that their young people were receiving. This was always simplistic nonsense and has, over the past few weeks, clearly been demonstrated to be so.

Over the years similar adverse comparisons have also been made in Europe. Our maths education was deemed inferior to that of countries whose economies were performing better than ours. This relationship has been treated as strongly causal. The fact that the UK economy is now stronger than that of most of its European competitors has not, as far as I can tell, led anyone at the Department for Education and Employment or elsewhere to rethink that assumption.

There is really very little evidence that having a mathematically competent workforce is economically important. France, which, more than any other country, emphasises maths in the curriculum, has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the European Union. The United States, whose poor performance in international comparisons matches ours, has the strongest economy in the world.

What we need to do is to educate young people to think mathematically. That is not the same, nor is it conditional upon, the ability to do sums.

BRYAN CHAPMAN 37 Moorfield Road, Ilkley West Yorkshire

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