Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

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The value of mathematics cover (composite)Reform is an interesting think tank. They claim to be non-partisan and solely interested in the neutral pursuit of “a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity” yet in reality have a tendency to favour reforms which involve a reduced role for the state and are not at all surprisingly firmly on the Conservative end of the spectrum. Their token Labour and Lib Dem sponsors, Frank Field and Jeremy Browne respectively, do little to confound their reputation for having a rightward inclination.

All of which makes their latest publication all the more perplexing. I’ve read the press release and executive summary of The Value of Mathematics (PDF) and it seems a little confused. I’m not an educationalist and am not qualified to answer their criticisms of how maths is taught in school. What I can say is that with the best will in the world, Gordon Brown can hardly be blamed for it. So why all the smirking innuendo about “Gordian knots”? The legend of the Gordian Knot is not famed for is association with mathematics as far as I know (although I am grateful to wikipedia for leading me to this article, which hardly undermines my point), nor is mathematics teaching a particularly intractable problem. And is Alexander’s solution – effectively smash and grab – sound like the sort of solution that is really needed? Alexander didn’t cut the knot in order to make people free; he did it to rule the fucking world! The closer you look at it, the worse a metaphor it turns out to be.

Perhaps if Reform was more interested in Phrygia than Prada they would have appreciated this, but clearly knowledge isn’t actually something they have much time for, as this quote from Elizabeth Truss reveals:

“In today’s Britain it is acceptable to say that you can’t do maths, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn’t read. We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic.”

This quote highlights two conceptual fallacies within this report. The first is to equate the lack of people taking mathematics to an advanced level with innumeracy. Getting less than a C in GCSE maths doesn’t make you innumerate and more than getting less than a C in English makes you illiterate. It is a crucial distinction if the problem you purport to be identifying is a lack of scientists, engineers and statisticians rather than the poor quality of supermarket cashiers.

If the problem is the latter, and in fairness it should be pointed out that the report does briefly reflect on this (albeit it only to the extent that it quotes one of those surveys where businesses get the chance to whinge with no actual empirical data to back it up) then you have to take a number of remedial steps. That lead to the sort of policies Labour came out with in the late nineties. Fundamentally, it is a primary education issue more than it is a secondary education issue. Improving maths GCSE is a bit of an irrelevance in this respect.

That isn’t the problem that the report is mainly concerned with however, and it is highly doubtful that the UK would be a happier, more prosperous place if every person in the street could do complex algebra. Indeed, it could be argued that we would be better off if fewer people were doing maths at Key Stage 4. If there is a problem, it appears to lie in the fact that people who are good at maths are not fulfilling their potential and that there is a general cultural problem where intelligence is undervalued in a society obsessed with image and bling.

This leads me directly to the other conceptual problem. What’s all this guff about transforming maths from “geek” to “chic” (the report repeats this phrase throughout)? My favourite line in the report has to be this:

The many people who enjoy Sudoku, logic problems and computer games highlight the considerable potential interest in mathematics.

No it doesn’t. At all. Whether the two are linked is another matter, but interest in computer games has risen at an inverse proportion to interest in mathematics. Neither them, nor Sudoku and other logic problems are about maths at all, any more than crosswords and cinema are about English literature. None of them are “chic” – all of them are “geek” – yet they’re still popular. Doesn’t that suggest they just aren’t getting it?

Will our problems really be solved if only they talked about Pythagorean equations in Sex and the City with the same enthusiasm that they talk about handbags? Maths has always been “geek” and always will. Trying to fool kids into thinking it is somehow hip and happening isn’t going to solve anything. The problem isn’t Stephen Hawking and the solution most definitely isn’t Victoria Beckham.

Chic is the problem; in a world which celebrates superficiality and shallowness any vocation which requires a bit of brain power is going to struggle. Maybe if people like Elizabeth Truss, a Cameroon A-lister, weren’t so down on “geek”, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

I’m sorry to bang home the point, but it does suggest an inherent confusion. You simply cannot with one hand dismiss attempts to make maths “relevant” while calling for it to be made “chic” with the other. To do so is utterly fatuous.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if, despite this being one of the paper’s main conclusions, they actually spelt out how this would be achieved. On substance however, the only thing the paper is willing to say about how to make maths “chic” is to have more “rigour” and more things like the UK Maths Challenge. They call for less state control while simultaneously demanding that the government “steps in” to halt the “current inexorable drift” towards modularising maths GCSE. All of this sounds like more state control to me, not less.

This is the other problem with the paper; in calling for less state control, it lacks the courage of its convictions. Outside of the Department for Children, Schools and Families I don’t think anyone fails to recognise that “teaching to the test” is doing anything but harm. But at the same time, they can’t help having a pop at “the misguided trend towards ‘progressive’ teaching.” But you can’t have it both ways. It wasn’t Thatcher who insisted on “progressive” maths teaching in the early 80s, it was the teaching profession. It is my experience that in areas such as the national curriculum, politicians tend to defer authority to civil servants and “experts” with remarkable consistency regardless of political ideology. It is those “progressive” experts who seem to be behind the “inexorable drift” that they are so opposed to. And if we are all to be much freer in choosing which schools our kids go to, a great many of us are likely to opt for ones with “progressive” attitudes.

The answer to that, surely, is that enabling greater experimentation will mean that best practice can evolve organically. No-one should be under any illusions however that giving teachers more power over their own jobs, and parents’ more power over where to send their kids to school is going to magically result in better teaching automatically. Nor are parents or even teachers going to put the interests of the national economy at their top priority. Many parents will pick schools on the basis of what religious ethos (or lack thereof) they adhere to. Many will opt for ultra-progressive education methods such as Summerhill‘s. China does a great job at hothousing mathematicians, yet somehow I suspect Reform would have issues with their education system.

There’s actually very little in this report which is about less control; merely bad teaching. That’s fine, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t conflate the one with the other. Liberalising education is a big, radical step. Pretending that doing so will lead to all schools adopting the same teaching methods is a fantasy. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Yet this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Conservatives equate less state control with a rejection of “progressive” education and the problem they identify stemmed from the Thatcher and Major administration. Both these facts cast significant doubt over whether Tories really do get liberalisation.

Government certainly must share some of the blame, but it is important not to ignore the wider social pressures. Learning has always been uncool and it is foolish to pretend you can somehow make it so. A celebrity and vanity-obsessed culture is always going to under-value science and mathematics and any look at maths teaching in this country needs to reflect on that. Yet of course it is those cultural values that Cameron, and Blair before him, has capitalised on. After the London elections we now know what a real electoral force those values can be. So it is hardly surprising that a Cameroon report of this type is going to present those trends as a solution rather than a problem, no matter how foolish this appears to be.

8 thoughts on “Tory calls to make maths “chic” badly miss the point

  1. Aha, so it’s okay for you to abuse historical events for your own amusement, but it’s really bad when other people do it, eh? 😛

    I really am surprised that learning is still uncool. If you compare what sort of money educated people make to uneducated, you would have thought that learning would be quite attractive, whether or not the tabloid media is force-feeding the general public a diet of footballers, movie stars and pointless celebrities.

  2. Okay, mea culpa. I only used that anecdote as it was an excuse to sort-of swear and I accept that is no better than Reform making partisan jibes about Gordian knots.

    But that isn’t my main beef with the paper.

  3. @letter from a tory

    No, I’m afraid even an F at GCSE still doesn’t necessarily make you innumerate. To be innumerate, you much be unable to count, do simple mental arithmetic, not know your times tables, and so forth. None of this is what the GCSE maths syllabus tests for, it is about basic algebra, geometry, how to draw graphs and things of that nature. Things of interest to mathematicians, rather than maths needed in ones daily life.

    Basic mental arithmetic is taught in primary school, and assessed in the “Application of Number” Key Skills exam.

    Regarding grade boundaries, they are set according to how well people actually perform. If the majority of students find a particular paper more difficult, then the grade boundaries will be adjusted downwards to compensate. Actually, it’s a bit more complex than that, and involves a lot of esoteric formulae and bell curves and suchlike, but you get the general idea.

  4. Great post.

    LFAT’s comment is interesting for the total absorption it demonstrates in boundaries, grades and what-have-you, at the expense of any wider sense of what the subject means and what it is supposed to teach. In that sense, LFAT, you’re behind the “progressive” edge of Toryism, I fear, struggling to be born in this paper as it attempts to favour less state control.

    I remember reading a Graeme Archer piece on ConHome about education which had all the hallmarks of a Lib Dem approach – less state control, parents to decide to fund and run their own schools how they wanted, local diversity, blah blah blah. All very nice. The commenters then vigorously “agreed” that what was really needed was, er, the return of corporal punishment, the universal wearing of blazers, making exams universally harder, racially segregated schools (no word of a lie) and a general conviction that the Tories should get back into office and really, you know, go round and *sort out the schools*.

    Not a clue, any of them. And it’s on display in this paper in attenuated form.

    On Sudoku though, it does have mathematical underpinning, doesn’t it? Not because it’s got numbers, but because it’s a spatial logic problem.

  5. On Sudoku, yes of course you are right. I was originally going to suggest that they only mentioned Sudoku on the basis that it’s a puzzle with numbers and to the Reformites numbers = maths. But while there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence from reading the paper that that is indeed the case, there isn’t any concrete evidence.

    The point I was trying to make was that problem solving and logic isn’t limited to maths and that interest in logic problems merely demonstrates a thirst for exercising the brain. I could also have added that it is predominantly older people who are into these things, not kids. In fact, it would be interesting to investigate to what degree children are into things like Sudoku – this could have been an interesting direction for the report to take, but instead they merely tacked on an assertion.

    Ironically, I found a lot more insight in Marcus du Sautoy’s Guardian article plugging this report than the report itself. Despite an annoying predilection for parroting the report’s slogans, he seems to “get” how to make maths interesting a lot more than the authors of this paper.

    Another point which occurred to me the other day: this report claims that the lack of mathematicians has cost the UK economy £9bn since 1990. According to my maths that works out at £500,000,000 a year, which doesn’t actually sound that much and certainly doesn’t sound like a compelling case to change things. Far from understanding the true value of mathematics, Reform seem only capable of understanding the cost, which is a little hollow.

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