I took a maths quiz today, helpfully posted online by The Telegraph newspaper, and based on key stage exam questions for seven- to 14-year-olds. I got only 60 per cent of the ten questions correct. Oh dear. Back in the mists of time when I took my maths O level, I received an A grade, but things have apparently gone wrong since then! The questions I fell on were all algebra (well, except perhaps one where I just wasn’t concentrating). The fact is that I can’t recall how to do a differential equation – or any other kind of equation for that matter.
It was great fun to do the quiz, but underlying my result is a more serious point: I don’t use differential equations in everyday life, so I’ve forgotten how to do them. But I do use addition, percentages and proportions, and these were the questions I got right. Rounding down the amounts of pasta needed per person from the instructions on the packet for example – basic, but useful. And I’ve already given a percentage in this article, assuming that everyone in my audience knows that 60 per cent of ten is six; but they might not. The skills we need for everyday life, and especially for the workplace, are the ones that should be drummed into school pupils to prepare them for adult life.
But a government-backed review, led by the Education and Training Foundation, published in March, showed that over three-quarters of employers believe that action is needed to improve maths and English skills, fearing that poor skills in these areas can have a real impact on business. Businesses don’t mind so much what qualification a potential employee has, just that it provides good practical skills. Meanwhile, in 2014, more than a third of GCSE entrants did not achieve a decent pass of grade C or above in maths. And anyway, are these exams provide training in the right, practical skills?
Another survey published in March, commissioned by National Numeracy, reveals that around half of adults felt that their maths GCSE (or equivalent) had not helped them in the workplace, while 35 per cent found aspects of daily life challenging because of a lack of aptitude in maths and numeracy. A third want to improve their maths skills – for some, so they can better support their children in doing homework, for others, to improve DIY or cooking skills or to understand the statistics quoted in the media.
National Numeracy is pushing for greater awareness of the importance of numerical skills, particularly for personal finances. As money guru Martin Lewis says in The Telegraph, ‘Maths is the lifeblood of good money saving, helping you understand when you’re getting a good deal and when you’re being ripped off.’
Financial literacy is key to success in life, and attempts to improve the maths curriculum in this area have been weak. It’s down to our teachers to ensure that pupils are equipped not only with the more arcane aspects of maths (roll on differential equations!), but in the everyday applications of the subject.