This week's column is all about mathematics. If you are like me, that word will make your pulse elevate slightly, not in excitement but because for years I felt I couldn't "do" maths. Despite the best efforts of the teachers at Grove County Junior School in Somerset I struggled with long division, wrestled with fractions and gave up all together on algebra and it was only through painful effort during my Masters degree course in America that I finally overcame my demons and became confident with numeracy – although I always have a calculator in my handbag, just in case. But I know I am not alone and that the problem has persisted through the generations. Indeed, a deeply worrying recent OECD report found that England has some of the least numerate young adults in the developed world, ranking 39th out of 42 countries.
Our 14 year olds receive only 116 hours of maths teaching a year, compared to 166 hours a year in Taipei and 138 hours in Singapore and we have the lowest proportion in the developed world of students studying advanced mathematics. Not only is this a problem for those in school, but of course, with numeracy a key and growing requirement for almost all jobs, including trades such as plumbing and building (how else would estimates and bills be calculated?) these worrying shortfalls will affect the life chances of all of our young people.
I therefore welcome the very sensible measures that are being taken to improve the quality, provision and take up of mathematics to age 18. First, the primary school curriculum will focus on basic and vital building blocks like times tables, whole number arithmetic and fractions, and calculators will no longer be available for Key Stage 2 tests at the end of primary school, second, if pupils do not get at least a grade C in maths at age 16 they will have to keep studying the subject up to 18 until they do make the grade. And third, a new option, called Core Maths will be introduced for those who have got the grades at GCSE and want to continue studying but not take a full Maths AS or A Level and this subject will be included in league tables. With numeracy linked to success, and interestingly, strongly correlated with women reaching the top in corporate boardrooms, these changes should really help equip our young people with a vital skill that they need and it is good to see such common sense measures being brought forward by the Government.