The increasingly bizarre furore over the possibility of returning to O Levels and CSEs in England has rather overshadowed another piece of news: a report suggesting that, because it is so essential in our society and so poorly understood, maths education should be made compulsory to age 18.
But the report has it backwards. Not that maths isn’t essential. Not that people’s mathematic ability doesn’t in general leave much to be desired. But adding another two years of maths instruction is exactly the wrong way to go about it.
It does not take 13 years to learn how to do basic arithmetic. It still doesn’t take 13 years when you add in other useful parts of mathematics, like geometry and the “statistics and probability, and the ability to do complex calculations and algebra” that the CBI would like potential employees to have. There is nothing here that could not be completed by age 16.
A lot of people are turned off maths at a very young age, because it is taught badly. Making them sit through even more stuff they hate for another two years is not going to change that. What needs to change is the way maths is taught at primary level.
The trouble is that a lot of primary teachers are themselves very poor at maths. They can’t teach it with enthusiasm, because they lack the confidence, because they lack the skills. And the kids pick up on their teachers’ (and parents’) attitude that maths is hard and boring, and not really worth doing. I suspect this is a consequence of the sort of people who are attracted to primary school teaching, though it could just be a reflection of general maths aversion in the population as a whole. Maybe we need specialist primary maths teachers?
Here are some good examples of teaching maths at a primary level. I’m particularly impressed by the freedom the children have to interpret their brief in each case. This freedom may be essential to retaining interest and enthusiasm, by letting them learn by following their own interest. Not to mention the extra stimulation they get just by being outdoors.
Of course, giving children such freedom, and teachers such flexibility, requires a deep rethink of the way our education system works. But unlike Michael Gove, I don’t think the way to assist children to enter (and create) the society of the future is to return to the teaching methods of the past.