Some years ago, shortly before I left the Financial Times, I gave a talk at a literary event in Oxford. Put up your hand, I said to the audience, if you are useless at maths — whereupon the arms of around a third of them shot into the air. At the time, I wrote a column saying something had gone badly wrong when so many people in one of the most intellectually rarefied towns on the planet were not only dunces at maths but wore their inadequacy as if it were a charming quirk.
This week, the prime minister made the same point when he railed against the country’s “anti-maths mindset”. Rishi Sunak’s solution is to force all teenagers to study the subject until they are 18; mine was to roll my sleeves up and become a maths teacher myself.
The difference between our approaches is that mine did no harm. I tried my hardest to get teenagers to learn probability and algebra but after a year, with the relief that comes from deciding to do what you love, I switched to teaching economics and business instead. Sunak’s scheme may be equally well intentioned, but coercing students to go on doing what they hate will be ruinously expensive, counterproductive and borderline cruel.
Sunak, whose formative experience of maths was from his own school days at Winchester, would have done well to visit me as I entirely failed to teach standard-form maths to a Year 10 bottom set in an inner London comp. He would have witnessed a struggling student asking the million-dollar question: “Miss, why are we doing this?” There was no earthly reason. None of them would ever need standard form again. Surely Sunak would have seen that his first task was to do something about the 30 per cent of students nationally who fail to get the lowest pass at maths GCSE.
These teenagers are now required to retake the exam over and over until they pass or turn 18 — with the result that 100,000 students each year will have spent two years notching up successive failures, leaving most of them at 18 feeling they are not only failures at maths, but at life.
Remedial math at the University of Wisconsin.
“used surveys in early 2020 to assess how students felt in their math classes and what teachers thought about their own efforts to help students feel like they belong”