Friday 21 October 2016

Practical Magic

One, two, buckle my shoe. From the earliest of our days we hear about numbers. Three, four, knock at the door. Numbers are everywhere; they describe our world. Ton-up, megabyte, 3-D, fourth estate, fifth column... Five, six, pick up sticks. Cashier number nine, please, ‘ten items or less’[sic] buy-one-get-one-free. Seven, eight, interest rate; ‘the pound is worth...’ ‘the FTSE ended...’ ‘At the third stroke’, count your blessings; you just won’t thrive without numbers. Telephone numbers, house numbers, personal identification numbers, National Insurance numbers. Nine, ten... a big, fat zero.

I used to regularly use the line: Twenty percent of British school leavers are functionally illiterate... and the other third are rubbish at maths. I’ve given it up now; it used to get a laugh, but now it rarely raises a smile; rather it elicits serious nods and expressions of concern. Really? Oh, come on you guys. From time to time the national newspapers feature maths problems that have defeated the cohorts it was aimed at, usually under some pithy headline which asks ‘Can YOU do the Maths?’ followed by a series of numerical questions of such a basic nature you suspect a spoof. 

But it’s a growing problem. Mike Ellicock from the charity National Numeracy claims there is a 26% wage premium for basic numeracy. Not for A-level, or even GCSE maths, just an ability to deal with everyday numbers. Some people even claim that the blame for the sub-prime mortgage crisis originates, in part, in a lack of understanding of numbers. Whether that holds water is a whole other discussion, but there is no question that our education system is at the heart of the problem. An OECD report earlier this year had some hard words to say about the numeracy levels of undergraduates, suggesting university may not be for them.

Numeracy is indispensable in navigation our increasingly complex world and given the skills shortages in STEM subjects any parents with ambition for their children should take steps to give them this vital understanding. A friend of mine was recently concerned that his son was falling behind in maths and took the bold step of enrolling him in the local catholic school. Being somewhat lapsed this took some effort on his part, but the school has a great reputation for sending its pupils on to some of the best universities in the country.

Expecting, at best, a moderate improvement he was delighted to see his son taking a renewed interest in the subject, regularly spending hours on his homework. His overall demeanour improved and his behaviour was a joy to see. He went from being a typical surly teenager to a smartly dressed, attentive and polite young man. At the first term parent-teachers meeting he was given a glowing report from his form teacher, especially for his maths, in which he regularly gained A-grades.

Delighted, his father asked him about the dramatic improvement as they were walking from the school assembly hall. “Why are your math grades suddenly so good?" His son pointed up at the large crucifix on the wall and said, in a hushed voice, “When I walked in here the very first day and I saw that guy on the wall nailed to a plus sign, I knew this place means business!”


  1. Ha ha very good.

    But you make a serious point.

    Have you noticed how, even in supposedly quality papers, the writers are unable to distinguish between a value and its differential?

    My favourite example: small headline in the Daily Telegraph "Scottish food price doubles in a year". Thinking this unlikely, I read the article, to find that that actual thing was that the rate of increase of the price had gone up from 1.8 to 3.4 or some such.

    This is typical.

    I am entirely ready to believe the assertion about sub-prime mortgages.

    1. I have been noticing a steady decline in ability, accompanied by a steadily reducing sense of shame about it. I swear they are taught not to give maths the priority it deserves.