Maths teaching has been stuck in a vicious circle to our economy’s detriment

 
Alison Wolf
IF YOU’RE gloomy about the UK’s economic future, some recent additions to YouTube might cheer you up. One features a girl icing and re-icing a cake in red, white and chocolate. Another has 15-year olds sporting big fake Poirot moustaches. And in a third, a collection of battered buckets pours water in, and out, of ponds.

This isn’t normal YouTube territory. These short videos were all made by London school pupils who haven’t yet taken their GCSEs. They all explain, with flair, how to solve difficult mathematical brain-teasers. And they prove that the city possesses a wealth of this century’s key talent: mathematics.

Maths lies at the core of a successful modern economy. Not arithmetic, not accounting: maths. Why? Because maths is the language of modern science and social science. It is the language of engineering and technology, at the heart of Rolls-Royce engines, laptops and tablets, or the Shard.

Any large developed economy can only thrive if it also invents. In a world of global trade, there are plenty of hungrier countries eager to play catch-up with the developed West. Plenty of companies are impatient to make what we made as well, but cheaper.

So if we want to stay prosperous, to buy energy, clothing, or smartphones from abroad, we also need to sell, and sell things that are highly-desirable and hard to replicate. The number of people in an economy who create such products can be small; ours is a world where ever-greater numbers do and will work in service industries. But inventors and innovators are critical to growth. And a lot of them must be people who “speak” maths.

And yet, in their school system, the English have neglected maths for generations. Anyone who tries to hire adults with mathematical or quantitative skills discovers fast that we have a serious skills shortage. From time to time, I try to hire a researcher with good statistics and economics: offering a university salary, more often than not I fail. But so do employers offering far higher pay.

Yet among 14 and 15-year olds, there is, as I’ve described, a mass of talent, enthusiasm and imagination. With maths and science graduates commanding high salaries, why the shortage? It’s a long-standing vicious circle.

In English schools, many maths and physics classes are taught by teachers without degrees in the subject. Universities consequently struggle to recruit enough well-prepared students. Departments now hire one non-British lecturer after another, since we are failing to produce enough UK-born mathematicians. Recruiting enough good maths school teachers is impossible. The circle continues round and down.

Politicians seem, finally, to have realised that ignoring maths is neither glamorous nor sensible. The government is promoting specialist maths schools, linked to university departments, to recruit and teach talented sixth-formers. At King’s, we are opening one of the first, next September; those YouTube videos, linked to our website, were entries in a contest we ran for London schools. But reversing the cycle of decline will take patience and consistent policy-making. Neither is common in the UK: but the alternative would be bad news for growth.

Alison Wolf is professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a governor of King’s College London Mathematics School. (www.kcl.ac.uk/mathsschool) (www.kcl.ac.uk/mathsschool/Competition)

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