“Every person should be treated as an individual with their own abilities, personality and interests.”
08 January 2023
The title of today’s blog post is taken from a letter in Friday’s Guardian newspaper. It was one of several letters commenting on Rishi Sunak’s poorly thought out proposal that every young person should study maths until the age of 18. The suggestion for an extension of compulsory maths was made in a speech that Sunak gave earlier in the week. The plan (if one can even call it a plan) has been almost universally condemned in the media. Many, including Carol Vorderman, who is a champion of maths education and of the importance of numeracy, have expressed derision for Sunak’s idea.
It seems to me that two important points come out of the criticism of Sunak’s proposal.
The first is that there is a huge difference between practical numeracy, which is a necessary skill if one is to thrive in the 21st century, and “mathematics” as promoted by the GCSE maths syllabus that dominates the secondary school maths curriculum. Vorderman made this point strongly in her LBC interview. It is, of course, very important that young people should develop a good understanding of financial and statistical arithmetic. Otherwise they will be unable to make informed choices about such things as interest rates, financial decisions, and statistical risk, and they could be exploited by dishonest business people and politicians. But only a tiny minority of young people will ever need to solve a quadratic equation or to calculate the surface area of a trapezium after they walk out of their last maths exam. So it is a cruel waste of time to force young people to perform such irrelevant tasks. (They even have to memorise the formulae for both these tasks, following the “reforms” to the GCSE maths syllabus associated with Michael Gove and his sidekick Dominic Cummings!)
The second important point is that it is a big mistake to try to solve educational problems by adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The overall approach to educational reform in recent years has been to try to push all young people down the same route – to claim that everyone aged x should be taught y. But by the time young people have reached the age of about twelve they are very different from each other in terms of experiences, capabilities and interests, and it is nonsense to try to make everyone of the same age follow the same educational route. If an individual has reached a satisfactory level of practical numeracy by the age of 16, it is surely crazy to force them to continue to study maths for another two years, particularly if their capabilities and passion lie in other directions (e.g. music, craft or design). Likewise, if an individual – like the Guardian letter writer quoted in the title of this post - has dyscalculia and simply cannot relate to mathematics, then it is both pointless and cruel to force that individual to continue studying maths in late adolescence. The writer of the letter was surely right to say that “every person should be treated as an individual with their own abilities, personality and interests.” This requires a much more flexible approach to what and how teenagers should learn. For the sake of a political gimmick Sunak seems to have taken a stand against an enlightened and flexible approach to education.
Image by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons