Josh Hillman: Our failure over maths will add up to a gloomier future

FOR the great majority of teenagers, walking out of the exam hall after taking GCSE mathematics signals the end of their maths careers. That’s it, they’re done with maths and need never be bothered by the subject again. No more algebra, trigonometry or statistics.

Even if they are staying in education and aiming for university, there is no requirement – and often no incentive – for teenagers to continue with maths, unless they are set on higher education in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject. And that population, as we know, remains relatively small.

Sadly, this has serious implications for British education and, more broadly perhaps, for the British economy.

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The great maths exodus is a peculiar characteristic of our education system. The UK has one of the lowest rates of students learning maths after the age of 16 in the developed world. Or, more specifically, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have very low rates. Scotland, with a different curriculum and exam system, fares a little better, but is still below the international average.

Fewer than one in five teenagers in England continues with any maths in the sixth form or at college, excluding those who retake GCSE.

In Yorkshire and Humber, fewer young people take A-level mathematics than in most other regions of England, and mathematics GCSE results here are among the lowest in the country.

This differs from nearly all other countries. The UK (minus Scotland) ranked the lowest of 24 countries in a study commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation. In Japan, Sweden and Korea, all students continue with some form of maths in upper-secondary education; in France, Germany and Ireland, at least four in five do. So why does it matter if young people choose to drop maths at the first opportunity?

It matters for several reasons. Employers and increasingly universities are concerned that young people are coming to them without the maths essential for so many areas of work or study: it has either been lost or never learnt. A reasonable grasp of mathematical and statistical concepts is needed for various reasons – for nursing, the construction industry, social sciences, teaching, even journalism. In fact, it is hard to think of many careers and disciplines where maths is not needed.

What is more, making decisions in everyday life often requires mathematical and statistical understanding, whether making sense of health and safety risks, trying to balance the Government’s economic claims and the opposition’s counter-claims, or simply knowing the real chances of picking the winner in the two o’clock at Wetherby.

At the Nuffield Foundation, we believe that all young people should continue with mathematics beyond 16. With education or training becoming compulsory by 2015 for all until age 18, there is now a real opportunity to design valuable alternatives to the current A-level mathematics, with an emphasis on mathematical fluency and statistics.

Our latest research looked in depth at how a number of countries achieve high levels of post-16 maths participation. We cannot replicate wholesale one country’s education system, let alone its wider culture and economy. And we should be wary of extracting international data too simplistically or selectively – cherry-picking can be dangerous. But there are valuable pointers from the research and we think there are lessons to be learnt from overseas. In New Zealand, for example, teenagers are offered a “mathematics with statistics” course. It is optional and can be combined with a broad range of subjects. Although maths is not compulsory, participation is high after 16.

We believe this is one route that could be considered here, and we are not convinced that making maths compulsory is the only answer. Given that many GCSE classes contain too many unwilling students, introducing a further stage of compulsory maths to 18 could create its own problems.

Instead, offering students something that they can see the purpose of – that they know is valued by employers and universities, as is the case in New Zealand – may be more effective. We also realise that maths cannot be considered in isolation. In places like Germany and Hong Kong, where it is virtually compulsory to 18, it is never the sole compulsory subject. To decide on the right routes and design the right courses will require care and collaboration; buy-in from employers and universities is crucial. It will also have serious implications for teacher supply.

At present, most schools will tell you that maths is just about the hardest subject in which to recruit.

Headteachers dread losing good maths teachers because they can be so hard to replace. If all young people are to continue with maths in some form until they are 18 – as we believe they should – extra teachers will be needed to teach them.

Of course, in the long run, persuading more young people to engage productively with maths should feed through into an increased supply of specialist maths teachers (and more confident non-specialists) and a virtuous spiral should ensue. Getting there is going to take time and effort. But it has to be done.