Elizabeth Truss is the Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk. Follow Liz on Twitter.
Britain is still in denial about its maths problem. Despite mounting evidence of its importance in the modern world, the subject hardly dominates the headlines. In 2000 Germany used national outcry about poor results in “PISA shock” to drive reform and leapfrog Britain in the league tables within ten years. Yet Britain’s dismal 28th in maths rankings and outlier status in post-16 education provokes a whimper rather than an outcry. Britain needs a “Maths Shock” to address these failings which contribute to poor social mobility, the gender wage gap and sluggish economic growth.
Maths is the basis of the modern world, the foundation of many disciplines of daily life. The increased dominance of maths generates financial rewards for those who study it. It is the highest earning degree after medicine/veterinary science and those at our top institutions can reap even greater rewards. The average Oxford maths grad starting salary is £42,600, making them the top earning graduates in the country. This premium isn’t restricted to graduates. Those holding an A Level in maths earn ten per cent more than their peers who qualify in other subjects. But students are failing to master the basics. Research by King’s College London suggests that GCSE level maths is delivering less than it was in the 1970s and does not provide sufficient maths skills for the requirements of work or modern life. The proportion mastering basic maths skills by 14 has declined since the 1970s from 44 per cent to 36 per cent, with students failing to master the use of ratios and multiplicative reasoning.
Yet despite the financial rewards Britain has the lowest proportion of students taking maths at A Level in the OECD. Fewer than 20 percent of students take the subject, in most top performing jurisdictions it is near universal. Girls and those from low income backgrounds particularly lose out on the golden maths ticket. Girls are less likely to take A Level Maths and even less likely to do Further Maths. Comprehensive school students are half as likely to do the subject as their private school counterparts and a third as likely to do Further Maths. There is no difference in history or English. More maths wouldn’t just help growth; it would drive social mobility and reduce the pay gap between men and women.
In 2000 the UK was 12 places ahead of Germany in the international league tables in maths, the OECD PISA test for 15 year olds. The “PISA shock” of poor performance, much reported in the German press, spurred the country on to reform. By 2009 they were 12 places ahead of the UK. Of course, we have different problems from the Germans. They had a short school day and a poor national structure which they addressed. Britain has a shortage of qualified teachers, problems with the curriculum and a drop off in students at 16. Action is being taken on teaching by paying a £20,000 bursary to top graduates to train as maths teachers and rewarding those who have A Level Maths and go into Primary teaching. A new, more rigorous curriculum is on the cards with December’s expert panel highlighting top performing countries better grounding in key mathematical concepts. The recently released draft primary maths curriculum provides a taste of what to expect. By the age of nine, all children should know their times tables up to 12×12 – currently it’s up to 10×10 by 11. And before they leave primary school pupils should be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions and do long division. This will bring Britain in line with high performing countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada.
We also need a “maths shock” to sort out the gaping gap at 16. The spur for this should be last year’s Vorderman report that recommended that maths should continue until 18 for all students. The Government has already dipped its toe in the water by requiring those failing to gain a grade C at GCSE to re-take. It should now go further and make maths a core part of the post-16 curriculum. This would follow leading countries. Hong Kong, one of the world’s top performers, recently made maths compulsory until the end of high school. In Germany maths is part of the Abitur, in France it’s compulsory for the majority of Baccalaureate streams and it forms a required element of the International Baccalaureate. In US states and Canadian provinces maths is a key part of the high school diploma.
Making maths part of the core curriculum in Britain would mean an urgent review of the courses available from 16-18. At present there is either a leap up to A Level Maths and Further Maths (which very few students who didn’t get at A or A star at GCSE take) or nothing. Attempts to create another “separate but equal” A Level Use of Maths were a failure because the subject was obviously easier but worth the same UCAS points. The contents were described by Fields Medallist and Cambridge Maths Professor Sir Tim Gowers as “deeply boring, and not even all that relevant to the people who are actually taking the exam.”
Instead of trying to shoehorn maths into an existing structure that doesn’t work for it, the subject should be “decoupled” from other A Levels and vocational courses. It could then be offered in three levels for all 16-18 year olds and the student would decide which was suitable. Higher maths [H Level] could be studied by those planning to take sciences at university or a highly technical apprenticeship. Preparatory maths [P level] would provide a basis for social scientists or could accompany a vocational course in a technical or engineering field. There could then be a core maths course [C Level] which could be taken by arts students or those studying other vocational disciplines. This course would mean that all those going on to teach in primary school for example or become journalists would have further grounding in core mathematical principles, bringing up the level for the next generation.
In 2000 Germany got a PISA shock and decided that they would tackle the imbalances in their education system. Together with other reforms, it has propelled the country forward, delivering growth and exports. It’s about time Britain got a maths shock and recognised the subject’s potential to power our future prosperity.