Reporter 410, 17 November 1997

Adding up the cost of falling mathematics standards in Britain

British children aged nine and 13 are far from the top in the world league of maths achievement according to a recent study of 45 countries. Professor Chris Robson has been appointed to the Government’s Numeracy Task Force, set up to bring primary maths standards up to scratch.

Fears that primary maths teaching is failing to prepare children for subsequent education and employment – with knock-on effects for the country’s economy – have grown in recent years. There has been a move back towards more ‘traditional’ methods, but Professor Robson (right) points out that teachers cannot simply revert to the ‘good old days’ approach of times tables learnt by rote. “That’s the style of teaching which has produced adults of today who largely have a negative attitude towards maths,” he said. “When I meet people at a party and admit I’m a maths lecturer they frequently say ‘I was hopeless at maths.’ An English lecturer wouldn’t have people saying they were illiterate.”

The task force will focus on primary mathematics, which includes arithmetic, simple geometry and data handling. The task force will be looking at research literature and will visit primary schools in the UK and throughout Europe before recommending ways of improving the standards of this age group.

There is much debate about the best way to teach maths – and indeed about precisely what mathematics to teach. Professor Robson says: “As a mathematician I’m used to proving whether something is right or wrong, but you can’t really prove how best to teach maths.”

Issues such as the use of calculators are the subject of disagreement. Professor Robson thinks that the current National Curriculum means that children are introduced to them too early – they should understand the arithmetic that calculators perform before they use them, just as university students with the more complex equipment they use.

According to the recent international study Singapore, Korea and Japan are at the top of the world league table, but solving Britain’s problems is not just a matter of applying their teaching techniques in our schools. Cultural differences play an important part – in Japan, for example, until very recently pupils needed the equivalent of maths A-Level to get into university and most of them have out-of-school coaching.

The study reported that English pupils said they enjoyed maths and thought they were good at the subject, whereas Japanese children disliked maths and didn’t think they were very good. Professor Robson believes this indicates that English pupils are being given easier tasks. They should be stretched more but “there needs to be a balance between stretching and demoralising.”

He admits maths does have an image problem in Britain. Medical scanners, mobile phones and pictures from Mars all depend on maths, but people don’t have to understand it to reap its benefits. “It’s crucial to our way of life so it ought to be interesting. However it’s not an easy subject so it’s not something you can chat about.”

The task force is due to report in the spring. Professor Robson believes a standing committee needs to be established to oversee the implementation of a coherent plan at the national level for mathematics education at ages five to 19. “At the minute there are too many different government bodies involved in maths education and they are all independent of each other. It’s a long-term problem and there isn’t going to be a quick fix.”

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