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What makes maths a must?

Why does everyone have to do all this maths?", "What use is it to me?" We all know the questions pupils ask at secondary school. What can their teachers reply?

Mathematics occupies a privileged position in the curriculum. It takes up more time and more resources than other subjects. It is compulsory through all four key stages. It is at the forefront of government initiatives to raise standards. But is this special status really warranted? Is compulsion through to 16 beyond question?

Compulsion needs to be justified because it means making people do things against their will. Without good reasons this is an affront to liberty and we citizens of a liberal democracy should not take such things lightly. To justify it, sound arguments are needed to show that what is learned under compulsion is vital to the well-being of the individual concerned.

At key stages 1 and 2 a strong case can be made for compulsory maths. Everyone needs basic numeracy. Young children anyway are not in the best position to make choices about what knowledge, skills and other abilities they will need in later life.

Things are not so clear cut at KS3 and 4. Does everyone need all the maths that is taught? Are not some pupils competent in the basics before the end of the compulsory period? And are not older pupils capable of making decisions for themselves?

We now have overarching aims for the national curriculum, but these aims do not explicitly indicate that maths is needed for living a flourishing lif, although they do help to outline areas of life where it plays an important role. These include work, understanding in the sciences and citizenship.

Yes, some jobs do require maths, but many no more than the basics. And basic maths is all that is needed to gain a more general appreciation of science. Not many of us will become specialist scientists. Should we force everyone to learn what only a few need?

True, everyone needs computational abilities to be an effective citizen, not least to cope with the political use and abuse of statistics, so there is a case for civic maths at KS3. But if our concern is to bring up effective citizens, why at KS4 do we insist on maths but allow pupils to drop history and with it a grasp of major developments in the 20th century?

Some will say that maths helps logical thinking, or that maths teaches people to think rationally, critically and creatively. Does it really? Better than any other activity? Where is the evidence?

We do not know how much maths a person needs. It might be much more than the basics, or the basics may take more time to learn than we think. What clearly is needed is a reasoned public justification for its special status. Compulsion through to 16 can no longer be taken for granted.

Dr Steve Bramall and Professor John White are editors of 'Why Learn Maths?' Bedford Way Paper 13, Institute of Education pound;15.99. Available from the bookshop, Institute of Education. Tel: 020 7612 6050. Web:

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