Monday, August 8, 2011

One Plus One Equals Eleven

If Carol Vorderman was given a 3 minute slot on BBC Breakfast this morning to talk about a piece of research she’s helped commission, and she ended up talking for 4 minutes, what percentage of her original time allocation did she over-run by? Well according to the research she was discussing, not many of us would be able to give her the right answer as it shows that up to three quarters of children who achieve a pass in GCSE maths can’t work out simple fractions or percentages.

The research was commissioned by David Cameron and Michael Gove before the general election and the results are shocking to say the least. They show that almost half of students fail maths at GCSE (don’t get a grade C or above) and that only 15% of students continue to study maths beyond GCSE compared to 100% in some industrialised nations. This obviously has serious implications for these students into their adult life and will no doubt have an effect on the economy – many jobs nowadays call for a minimum of 3 GCSE’s at grade C or above including maths and English and if Vorders is right and 24% of economically active adults are ‘functionally innumerate’ then the futures of our children really could be in trouble.

The research makes 11 recommendations which range from aiming to achieve results comparable to those in top performing countries to making maths a compulsory subject up the age of 18 in an effort to ensure the mathematical prowess of our future generations.

One of the comments Vorders made in her interview pricked up some ears over here at BDT HQ though. The research also showed that up to a quarter of all students are taught by a non-maths teacher and in some areas no students were taught by a maths teacher. There is a nationwide shortage of specialist mathematics teachers in secondary schools and those who have already fallen behind by age 11 are statistically never likely to be able to catch up again but with no specialist maths teachers their chances drop away to almost nil.

Maybe the answer isn’t to make maths a compulsory subject. There are plans to raise the age of compulsory education over the next 4 years so that by 2015 it will be up to 18 so maybe more students will pick maths if option lists are smaller. Perhaps the answer is to find a way of encouraging more of those people who did well at maths to pay it forward and become maths teachers. There has been a massive increase in the number of adults registering on numeracy and literacy courses over the past few years and whilst it’s good that these adults are keen to put right their educational ‘failings’ it’s a harsh indication of the ways in which the UK education system has let them down.

A recent TV ad campaign has made efforts to tackle this void by attempting to show that maths and science are useful and essential skills to have in a range of different jobs from being a cosmetic specialist to a video games designer, however if the specialist staff and teachers aren’t in place in the schools then no amount of enthusiasm is going to help children who are keen to learn. It’s a self-perpetuating problem though – too many children are leaving school without proper numeracy skills which leaves a smaller percentage of those who actually go into teaching with sufficient ability to properly teach maths.

So, what’s the real solution?

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