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23 March 2023

Maths to 18? Sure, let's just make it useful

Michael Sanders

We need a more mathematically, statistically, and financially literate population

Maths Badges

Today is World Maths Day, and this set me thinking back to January, when the Prime Minister set an ambition for Britain to teach every child maths until they were 18. This was greeted with scepticism by many who couldn’t see how this could be done as we already struggle to recruit enough maths teachers.

A smaller, but more vocal group took issue with teaching maths, arguing that doing so would stifle creativity. Perhaps the most disappointing intervention came from Simon Pegg, who said that “Rishi Sunak wants a f***ing drone army of data-entering robots”, followed by some choice words about the Conservative party.

This is disappointing, not because of Pegg’s decision to swear repeatedly in a policy debate, but because you’d hope that an actor who plays two people who use STEM skills for creative purposes – Benji Gunn in the Mission Impossible Movies, and Montgomery Scott, the Engineer of the Actual Starship Enterprise – would have a more nuanced view of maths education and its outputs.

Of course, some people already take maths to 18 – those who study maths at A-level, and those who are required to continue taking maths because they didn’t pass their GCSE the first (or second) time around. The Prime Minister’s ambition would be to fill in the gap.

An “ambition” is exactly what it is at this stage – there are no concrete plans in place. Given current polling, that may add up to a “pipe dream”, but at least it gives us something we can constructively engage with. So here’s my proposal, offered to the PM (or the opposition) free of charge.

We’re clearly not going to teach everyone A-level maths, but we have hundreds of thousands of people who’ve done just fine at GCSE and could continue to learn. We also face problems in society that are driven at least partially by a lack of mathematical literacy. My proposed curriculum would aim to tackle these by teaching statistics, economics, and life.

This might sound dry – statistics may be the only subject less immediately exciting than the “dismal science” of economics, but this could hardly be more important. Over the last 10 years, we have seen the rise of a form of post-truth populism, in which people’s lack of understanding of the economics of global trade, NHS funding and immigration have been weaponised against them to make us all worse off. Over the last three years, charlatans have misunderstood and misused statistics to convince millions to adopt unscientific anti-mask, anti-lockdown, anti-vax positions – arguments often buttressed by dodgy statistics. And over the last 18 months, a generation of people who have grown up in a world without serious inflation have faced a dramatic shock as the cost of living and interest rates have risen to levels that we had hoped were confined to history.

That we have been so ravaged by populism, Covid, and the cost of living crisis should make it clear to anyone that we need a more mathematically, statistically, and financially literate population – and that an understanding of statistics, economics and life will not create an army of unthinking drones. Instead it will inspire a generation with greater agency to resist untruths and power to change the world for the better.

Michael Sanders is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Experimental Government Team at the Policy Institute, King’s College London.

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