On Monday, prime minister, Rishi Sunak reiterated his aspiration that all children should study maths up to age 18 and triggered a national outpouring of scepticism. An avalanche of newspaper headlines and broadcast discussions scorned the suggestion.
The prime minister offered the British people an opportunity to indulge in something of a national pastime: perpetuating the narrative that maths is hard, people who enjoy it are either brainy or plain weird, and nobody uses half the concepts once they’ve left school anyway.
We disagree. Mathematics is a beautiful subject and a universal language. Master it and the possibilities for a fulfilling career are endless. The application of mathematics allows the world to solve a wide variety of problems in medical science, engineering, business, telecommunications and entertainment. Mathematics supports human development, life skills and technology, aiding problem-solving, logical reasoning and creativity.
However, culturally acceptable negative attitudes mean many students in the UK shy away from it. A National Numeracy report suggests that ‘negative attitudes, rather than a lack of innate talent, are at the root cause of our numeracy crisis’. As maths teachers and researchers, we have encountered these negative attitudes at first hand, demonstrated by parents and teachers.
The UK’s history of teaching maths as a set of procedures to be learned at speed, along with widespread myths of the ‘maths brain’ may be in part to blame. Certainly, if you were to listen to many of the conversations spawned by the prime minister’s comments, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all maths teaching has been dry and unrewarding for the vast majority. Moaning about maths is the norm.
Sunak’s determination to ‘change this anti-mathematics mindset’ is not, of itself, a bad thing. However, it is important to understand the complex issues linked to negative attitudes to the subject if maths skills are to be viewed in the same positive light as essential key skills.
Currently, England lags behind other OECD countries such as France, Germany, Canada, Finland, the United States, Japan and Australia, where all pupils routinely study maths until age 18. In the UK, of students achieving grade 4 or above in mathematics at GCSE, 20 per cent go on to study AS or A level maths.
Earlier governments have attempted redress. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government between 2010 and 2015 published a core maths policy aimed at attracting 40 per cent of students with grade 4 or above at GCSE to follow a core maths programme until age 18. The policy has not been realised, in part because of a lack of high-quality specialist maths teachers.
If we are to combat the negativity surrounding the subject, there is no point in giving students more years of mathematics unless we make those years enjoyable and rewarding.
Positive attitudes towards mathematics correlate with achievement in mathematics, and parental attitudes towards maths have a strong effect on pupils’ attitudes towards maths. Research has shown that pupils’ negative attitudes are developed in the early years and that by the end of secondary education many pupils have developed negative attitudes that are damaging to their learning, mostly characterised by disengagement, anxiety and lack of confidence.
We welcome a renewed focus on improving numeracy skills and increasing pupils’ engagement with learning mathematics until 18. But to achieve the vision set out by the prime minister, it is important for all pupils to experience the sort of high-quality maths teaching which leads to increased confidence and enjoyment in the subject.
Teachers need time to learn, and we urgently need to invest in high-quality professional learning programmes. Greater investment in adult numeracy more widely should also equip parents to support their children at home with maths work, breaking the generational ‘anti-maths mindset’.
Finally, an overall change in the narrative by politicians, teachers, and parents is necessary to drive positive attitudes towards mathematics and make maths one of the most loved subjects in England. We need to change the idea that it is OK to be bad at maths, to the idea that it is super ‘cool’ to be good at maths.
The incalculable value of mathematics in day-to-day activities is too significant to ignore!