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Improving maths standards will involve addressing the very real problem of maths anxiety
I was fortunate when I was young to be reasonably proficient at maths. The quantitative and unambiguous nature of the subject, in combination with the way it was taught, gave me a sense of self confidence that I otherwise would not have had - I was mediocre at best at other subjects and looking back wish my soft skills had developed more effectively. That said, maths has served me well, and I am aware just how useful a skill it is in everyday life. Indeed, the current prime minister is the latest to have announced plans to improve the UK's maths standards, in his case by making the subject mandatory up to the age of 18.
PM Sunak has yet to announce the details of his plan, and I like many will reserve judgment until he does. However, improving maths standards is a huge, complicated, multi-faceted task. For his plan to have any chance of success, it must address a whole host of issues.
The UK's current ranking in relation to maths standards among 15-year-olds compared with other so-called developed countries is poor. The most comprehensive global survey is the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted every three years.
Due to Covid-19, the 2021 survey was postponed to 2022, so the latest is the 2018 version. This latest report showed the UK in 18th spot out of 78 countries, though research by UCL found the UK's ranking had been distorted because of low levels of participation in the test and a disproportionate underrepresentation of lower achieving students. UCL's finding was supported by previous surveys which showed the UK's scores between 2003 and 2015 at a stable level between 492 and 495, followed by a statistically unlikely jump to 502 in 2018.
Adjusted for the distortion, the UK's 2018 score fell from 502 to 492 and its rank ten places to 28th, barely above the OECD average. In light of the UK's rich heritage in maths and science, being in line with the average should be considered disappointing. Moreover, some might also say that getting caught cheating paints us in a particularly poor light.
As for the 2021 survey, Croner-i, "The UK's leading information resource", wrote about it in this article titled What do the 2021 PISA results say about UK education? Which is odd, given that there was no 2021 survey.
It is clear that the standard of maths in the UK - whether among 15-year-olds, leading information resources, or in the broader population - is not as good as it should be. But what sort of maths should we be better at? And how should we go about achieving it?
The two questions may be related. Given a choice of two broadly useful maths subjects, I think it would be better to teach the one that is more enjoyable to learn. A major reason so many children drop maths after GCSE is maths anxiety aka maths phobia. This syndrome manifests as a feeling that one is not good at maths, which then feeds on itself, resulting in hatred of the subject and ineptitude.
Recently I have been helping my 13-year-old nephew with his maths revision - an eyeopening experience on many levels. Maths by its very nature is unambiguous and quantitive, and schoolchildren become palpably aware of where they stand in relation to their classmates. My nephew is capable, but he gets anxious because he is not in the top half of his class, which affects his confidence. It is not surprising that many children develop maths phobia.
Maths is unlikely to stop being unambiguous any time soon, so Sunak's plan to get disaffected 17- and 18-year-olds interested in maths again should I think focus on showing them the magic. Nowhere is the magic of maths more evident than in the fields of probability and statistics, where counterintuitive riddles can leave anyone aghast (I append three of my favourites below). And, as with magic tricks, the explanations are often simple and thus accessible.
Furthermore, a half decent grasp of probability and statistics is an asset that has many practical uses. Most of our everyday decisions involve a subconscious assessment of the probabilities of possible outcomes, while statistics is about making sense of the world around us. If one can agree that making better decisions and better sense of the world must by definition result in improved lives - presumably the ultimate objective of many, particularly prime ministers - then the case for Sunak prioritising the two subjects is clear. The only question then is how to implement.
Three examples of counterintuitive probability:
1. In a room of 30 people, what is the probability that two share the same birthday?
2. If the diagnostic test for a disease is 90% accurate, and 1% of the population have the disease, what is the probability that you have the disease if you test positive?
3. Suppose there is a family with two children. I tell you that one of the children is a boy. What is the probability that the other child is also a boy?
The views expressed in this communication are those of Peter Elston at the time of writing and are subject to change without notice. They do not constitute investment advice and whilst all reasonable efforts have been used to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this communication, the reliability, completeness or accuracy of the content cannot be guaranteed. This communication provides information for professional use only and should not be relied upon by retail investors as the sole basis for investment.
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