In educational terms, the Chancellor has had a eureka moment! He has worked out that the economy would benefit from more school-leavers being able to add up, take away and do a few more sums. ‘More maths for everyone,’ he chuckled in his Budget speech as he joked that he knows how to ‘show the nation a good time’.
Gallows humour has its place. More seriously, he should have encouraged schools to ensure that all leavers can work out, preferably without the use of a calculator, 60 x £5,170. The answer – £310,200 – is the amount by which the UK national debt increases per minute. Since Ofsted expects teachers to differentiate their teaching to accommodate the needs of mixed-ability classes, more able pupils should be asked to work out the national debt increase per hour, per day and per year.
Acquiring even this limited level of mathematical literacy would be a step in the right direction. If we could ensure that school-leavers understand some of the numbers, they might begin to understand the extent of the economic problems facing the UK. They might think twice about supporting politicians who are urging voters to carry on increasing the debt.
Young people might be criticised for misplaced idealism in backing Jeremy Corbyn, but that idealism cuts both ways. Our growing debt will impoverish and burden the generations not yet born. When young people understand this, their idealism might just cause them to think twice. The sense of fairness, so characteristic of many young people, is a quality to be encouraged, provided it is harnessed to reality.
‘What did you do, Mummy and Daddy, during the Brexit economic wars?’
‘Well, I voted to burden you with debt. I voted to spend money we did not earn. I voted to sell your future . . . but we are not to blame. The problem was that we could not do the sums. We were let down by our education.’
One cheer, then, for the Chancellor! He was right to recognise the need for mathematical literacy. We are never going to get out of the debt crisis we in and make the most of the opportunities provided by Brexit if young voters, in particular, are not taught how to do the sums.
Unfortunately, government has not fully grasped the extent of the crisis in maths education. According to the OECD, our 15-year-olds are around three years behind the best performing education systems. Last year the BBC discovered that GCSE maths is at the level of primary schools maths in South Korea. GCSE maths was made tougher this year following Michael Gove’s reforms, but the grade boundaries were adjusted in order to maintain the pass rate of previous years. Fifteen per cent constituted a ‘good’ pass.
Based on this foundation, the Chancellor is seeking to encourage more 16-year-olds to study A-level maths. So desperate have things become that he is offering schools a ‘bung’ – 600 quid – for each A-level maths pupil they can recruit. No questions asked, presumably. ‘Nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more’, is the likely response from many schools. With 15 per cent the entry level to an A-level maths course, what’s not to like? The final A-level grades will have to be dumbed down, of course, but there’s a few bob to be made here and everyone is happy – more cash for schools, more kids taking A-level maths and more passes.
All we need now is to retrain a few teachers and the Chancellor has promised funds for that, too. Problem solved? You really are a joker, Mr Hammond!
To begin with, we need to raise further the assessment bar at both GCSE and A-level so that standards here really do compare with the best in the world. Secondly, some value must be restored to the examination currency. These days, it is counterfeit. Half marks, at least, should be required for a ‘good’ pass, regardless of any slight fluctuations in the difficulty of questions from year to year. Most important of all, though, we need to raise the quality and rigour of maths teaching at primary school.
Child-centred group work will have to be ditched in favour of the whole-class teaching that once upon a time underpinned teaching in the UK and is the preferred methodology in the Asia-Pacific superstar education systems. This will allow for slightly larger classes, which in turn will mean we need fewer teachers. The savings made can go on improving teacher salaries to attract more of the best graduates into the profession.
Standards in mathematics and in other subjects will rise. That is the good news. It has, however, taken around three decades to bring educational standards to the crisis point identified by the Chancellor in his Budget speech. In educational terms we are now reaping what we have sown. It is likely to take the same amount of time to put matters right. That, Mr Hammond, is no joke!