As Britain struggles to work out whether it is better off in or out of the EU, it might pay heed to the devastating analysis that shows the really frightening obstacles to a thriving future lie at home. The OECD, the Paris-based think-tank, last month ranked British teenagers bottom of 23 developed countries in literacy, and 22nd out of 23 in numeracy.
That was not the first blow. Another OECD survey in May put British 15-year-olds 20th in the world in maths and science (above the US at 28th, it must be said); Singapore was top, followed by Hong Kong and South Korea. International rankings are controversial, not least because they sometimes compare cities or regions against whole countries; Shanghai’s glittering record hardly reflects the performance of China’s rural poor. Still, the tables help monitor a country’s progress, or lack of it — and point to teaching techniques that can be borrowed.
The consequences of failing in maths are crippling. Skills in the subject, from the most basic to the sophisticated, matter for every country. You might start with productivity, wages and growth, in a world where “every job will be digital”, a vision that applies to nursing, construction or farming as much as to web design. It also matters for social mobility and exclusion, and for the ability of citizens to cope with life, from reading an aspirin bottle, to the challenges of budgets, credit, savings and pensions.
In Britain, the numeracy problem seems peculiarly entrenched. Over the past couple of decades performance has stalled or drifted down. Successive governments, task forces, campaigns and initiatives by schools have all identified maths skills as essential and hurled themselves at the task of improvement. There are indeed signs of success, yet nothing on the scale needed.
The problem begins with a culture in which it is acceptable to remark “I don’t do numbers”, as if it’s a matter of DNA. It might be thought endearing of Prince Harry to say: “I hope I’ve got the physical skills to fly a helicopter. But mentally, there are the exams and everything — I mean, I can’t do maths.” It should be less so that Gordon Brown, who ran the UK economy for a decade as chancellor, once joked to school pupils: “I did maths for one year at university but I don’t think I was ever very good at it, and some people would say it shows.”
But the quote that best captures the British disease is from Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor, who with a nod to his role in The Imitation Game offered consolation to those struggling with maths as he did at Harrow, an exclusive school: “You can pretend to be Alan Turing.” Not if you need a job that offers a reliable wage and a career, you can’t.
It’s true that a small proportion of people struggle profoundly to grasp what numbers are at all. Some years ago, prompted by discussions of whether anyone could master basic maths if taught well, I set out to talk to those who work with “dyscalculia”. Watching a seven-year-old girl struggle to see that seven plus one is eight can give you a sense of vertigo, challenging you to explain what you take for granted.
Researchers have noticed a difference in five-month-old babies; if an adult plays peekaboo, bringing out one toy again and again, most babies will laugh or look alert if suddenly two toys appear — but a very few will not react at all. Yet even if there is a dispute about the exact percentage affected, most agree it is low.
For everyone else, basic mastery up to a good level at age 16 should be possible. But in Britain for several decades, an assortment of obstacles has emerged. Lack of specialist primary schoolteachers is a big concern; many are generalists and not confident with maths, in contrast, say, with Chinese counterparts, who are specialists and teach in teams, returning repeatedly to children who have not mastered a technique until they have.
Waves of enthusiasms have produced a patchwork of different techniques. There is a long-running tussle between those who advocate mastery of basic skills and those who want to focus on “understanding”. The long ideological battle about the value of testing has added its own confusions.
The OECD has praised reforms such as raising standards of qualifications at 16, and devising new ones to enable teenagers to study maths for longer. Currently only one in eight of British teenagers do maths after 16, putting the country far behind other developed nations.
But Britain arguably needs between 10,000 and 20,000 more maths teachers — and many more maths lessons each week, drawing on Asian comparisons. Teachers in many countries grappling with this argue that we are long overdue a review of the skills that pupils really need to master in the 21st century. Less trigonometry and factorising quadratic equations, say, and more percentages, fractions, probability and statistics — and matrices, which are rich in digital applications.
Above all, we need a change of culture. Last year, after protests, L’Oréal Paris withdrew an advert for an anti-ageing cream in which the actor Helen Mirren gave the pay-off line: “Age is just a number. And maths was never my thing.” If those ads are not going to be made in the first place, the campaign has some way to go.
Bronwen Maddox is editor of Prospect