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Thursday, March 18, 1999 Published at 11:30 GMT


Maths and cool - just don't add up

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

Consider this: when former School Standards Minister Stephen Byers flunked an on-the-spot challenge to multiply seven eights, he wasn't being thick or slow. He was being cool.

The same perhaps could be said for Education Secretary David Blunkett when, on Tuesday morning, he took a cool 13 seconds to work out 12 times nine on live radio.

Much has been made of the fact that maths is not fun, but equally as important to the streetwise schoolchild, is that maths is strictly square, with or without the root.

[ image: Calculators are out, mental arithmetic in, says David Blunkett]
Calculators are out, mental arithmetic in, says David Blunkett
Mr Blunkett admitted as much when launching the government's Countdown to Maths Year 2000 campaign, which is designed to boost Britain's ailing international standing in mathematics.

"Too many people in Britain say with almost a badge of pride that they never did understand maths properly," said Mr Blunkett.

Author Zia Sardar, whose new book, Introducing Mathematics, aims to explain the subject with illustrations and simple text, says mathematicians are "the very people you avoid at parties".

Mathematicians are from Mars

"They just look at you as though you are from Mars; as if they expect you to have a face full of pimples," he says, which is why he now introduces himself a writer instead.

"I was brought up on Thunderbirds and they had this character called Brains who was very scientific, very good at maths, but was not handsome like the rest."

[ image: Express yourself: Albert Einstein did]
Express yourself: Albert Einstein did
The former BBC broadcaster Johnny Ball concedes there is an "anorak" image associated with the subject. This is despite his best efforts to make the subject fun and appealing to children of the 1970s and 80s with his tea-time television programmes Think of a Number and Think Again.

Ball ponders the fact that the real problems start when anorak meets adolescent - that is when impressionable, self-conscious teenagers are forced to prioritise their academic subjects.

It's a crucial age and statistics reveal that when it comes to choosing A level subjects at 15 or 16, in these increasingly image-conscious times youngsters are opting for arts over sciences.

Only 9% of 1997 A level entries were in mathematics (and 21% in sciences). Social sciences and arts together made up half of all entries in that year.

Change perceptions

Ball says the problem lies in our perception of maths as a dry, academic subject.

"It's the foundation of all arts and sciences; music is maths; the way a ball flies through the air. You can't measure the size of a table for your house, or work out how much paint you need for your walls without maths."

As for the notion that maths scores a big minus in terms of self expression - a priority for any misunderstood adolescent - Sardar is roundly dismissive.

"Einstein and most great scientists have expressed themselves through maths. It's how they have defined themselves," he says.

Maths is money

So in a culture that lacks maths role models, it's simply a question of pushing out the boundaries.

"You could say Richard Branson is a mathematical role model. As a successful businessman you have to know all about money and that means maths," says Ball.

But all is not lost in the flailing fortunes of numeracy. Attempts have been made to popularise the subject, although a claim by the Sunday Times last November that "maths is the new rock'n'roll" did not quite add up.

[ image: Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting]
Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting
The newspaper had been referring to a perceived revival in the image stakes, thanks chiefly to the success of the Hollywood movie Good Will Hunting. In the film, actor Matt Damon (good bone structure, no pimples) plays a delinquent boy who turns out to be a brilliant mathematician.

The success of books such as Fermat's Last Theoram and The Joy of Pi indicated a healthy undercurrent of interest, albeit mostly among the literary chattering classes.

Sardar is encouraged by the government's latest effort to improve matters, with Maths Year 2000, which aims to promote a "can-do attitude... across the community".

Its "back to basics" emphasis on mental arithmetic for children is a marked shift in the recent trend for teaching pupils to "understand" maths at an early age.

"Once you learn your times tables by eight or nine, maths becomes easy. And if it's easy it no longer scares you. Then it can be interesting."

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