Our national view of maths just doesn’t add up
PUBLISHED: 06:46 16 May 2018
I get very annoyed at the cheap stereotypes on television that portray anyone good at maths as weird. All it does is strengthen a misconception some already have: maths is for other people.
That’s why I’m thrilled at the launch of National Numeracy Day today, because it shows that the UK is getting its act together. It’s one step on the path to the attitude of world leaders such as Japan and China, where mathematic and athletic prowess are on equal footing.
In Britain, it used to be fine, almost encouraged, to say that you were rubbish at maths. Perhaps fractions caused friction. Or trigonometry caused trouble. But many people stall while learning to drive – it doesn’t mean they should give up. And in both cases, the more you do it, the more confident you become.
I’m not just saying this because I work at the Treasury, and have an interest in numbers. Lots of people turn their back on maths because they don’t think it relevant to their lives. This is completely wrong. In simple economic terms, it makes sense for everyone to hone their skills: better maths can lead to an earnings boost of more than 10 per cent. And a good grasp of numbers puts you in a better position to decide whether to take out a credit card, if a mortgage is right for you, or how much to save for a pension.
Our world now revolves around technology and data and, without maths to make sense of it all, we will get dizzy. For the next generation, who will live their lives on a diet of apps and Microsoft excel, this will prove even more important.
That’s why we need to cultivate a love of the subject, starting in our schools. I’ve seen it in action at the Lilian Baylis Academy in London, a place where maths is celebrated and cherished. More than 50% of the children there take maths beyond the age of 16, roughly double the national average. And because of the opportunities maths opens up, each of them will enjoy up to 10% higher wages in their 30s.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, just under 20% of children take maths to A-level, well below the national average. But we are doing everything we can to help more schools follow the example of the Lilian Baylis Academy. Schools like the Sir Isaac Newton school in Norwich, which focuses on maths, will show East Anglia the way forward.
We have also launched the Maths Premium, which will come into action from September this year. This will reward schools and colleges with £600 for every extra pupil they persuade to take maths beyond the age of 16.
We might not all be like Ramanujan, the genius from rural India who, with no formal training, became one of the most influential minds of early 20th century maths – or even Rachel Riley. But we all can, and should get more numerate and more confident. Our futures depend on it.
Liz Truss is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and South West Norfolk MP