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We must learn to decipher numbers

Michael Blastland devised and is a former producer of `More or Less' on BBC Radio 4

I'm about to make the kind of comment of which every teacher must be heartily sick: Education is missing something. What's more, no one without this "something" will be able to make sense of many of the causes they follow, the issues they love or hate, or the facts of politics and public argument. In preparing people for adult life, that's quite an omission.

What is this thing and how have we missed it? We have missed it because it has crept up on us. Issues we care about have increasingly begun to come at us in their own language a language we seldom teach.

What is this language? From health risks, government spending targets, league tables, surveys, migrants, crime, the economy, climate change and goodness knows what else, the language is numbers. Not maths, but numbers. They are ubiquitous. Those who speak this language rule.

To dismiss it is to give up the game. For numbers, measurement and statistics are now, like it or not, the dominant language of news, politics, even of citizenship.

It's true that those fluent in it sometimes deceive; statistics can seem bamboozling. But that's good reason to learn how not to be duped. And here's the radical claim: you can often outdo the lot of them.

Here is how easily. In 1997, the Government promised pound;300 million to create a million childcare places over five years. Three hundred million? Is that a big number? Three hundred million pounds for a million places equals pound;300 per place. That's simple.

Assuming it is a million places in each year, pound;300 each equals pound;60 a year. Simple again. Yet that suggests childcare can be "created" for pound;1 or pound;2 a week. Could you buy childcare for that? In rural China maybe.

Britain's entire political and media classes discussed the policy as if you could. Does the public debate really not know what "big" is? Often not. Yet the ability to see it can depend on no more than a sense of how big we are as individuals.

We could teach this, and other skills like it, easily. Are citizenship classes the right place to teach pupils how to interpret this language of numbers? I certainly believe this would be an effective way of getting children to understand the social world, how it works, and how it is reported.

Statistics has hitherto failed to be well sold as a subject for study in schools. That failure lags ever further behind its social importance. We should stop talking about it as the language of abstraction and start teaching it as an immediate language of political and public understanding.

* The Tiger That Isn't: seeing through a world of numbers by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot (Profile Books)

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