BBC News


Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Wednesday, 4 June 2008 10:26 UK

How to solve the British maths problem?

Girl in maths class

Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The British are uniquely happy to admit being bad at maths, says a report. Why is that and how can attitudes change?

Imagine a famous television presenter joking that they couldn't read.

It's an unlikely scenario, such would be their embarrassment, yet no such reservations exist for mathematics, with self-confessed innumerates popping up regularly.

"I've always been rubbish at maths" is usually accompanied by a cheeky grin. The subtext is "I'm no boffin."

A report this week by think-tank Reform laments the drop in numbers of people taking maths A-level, at an estimated cost to the economy of 9bn.

Johnny Ball
A generation grew up with Johnny Ball enthusing about numbers

A maths A-level puts on average an extra 10,000 a year on a salary, says Reform, yet it is acceptable to say that you can't do maths.

Despite - for want of a better word - countless campaigns in recent years, and role models such as Johnny Ball and Carol Vorderman fighting numeracy's corner, people still need to be persuaded about the merits of mathematics.

In Korea or China they're really proud of being good at maths because they know the future of their economies depend on it
Marcus du Sautoy
Maths professor and broadcaster

This can't-do attitude has even afflicted scientists, says Alan Stevens of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and formerly a mathematician at Rolls Royce.

"Even engineers sometimes say they're no good at maths. The general public I hear saying it, and particularly journalists on television tend to say it - newsreaders saying they've always been rubbish at it - as if they're proud of it.

"This makes it seem even more acceptable and projects the wrong image, the image that maths is indeed an ivory tower which is dull and boring and of no interest or use to intelligent people. That's the wrong image."

It's not a recent development because it was the same when he was a teenager, he says, but is more evident on TV now. And while other subjects such as IT may have an equally geeky image at school, that indifference is not carried into adulthood.


A physics teacher demonstrates long division on the street

Marcus du Sautoy, maths professor at Oxford University and presenter of BBC Four's Mind Games, says he can't understand the pride there is in being bad at maths.

"It's bizarre why people are prepared to admit that because it's an admission that you can't think logically. Maths is more than just arithmetic.

Numberjacks on CBeebies
Children's television shows try to make maths fun

"I would rather do business with someone who admits they're good at maths.

"You don't get that in the Far East. In Korea or China they're really proud of being good at maths because they know the future of their economies depend on it, their finances depend on it."

He ascribes it to cultural factors and a failure of the education system and the media to put the case for valuing maths.

"But it's changing. There's a cultural shift in the adult world. There are films featuring maths, such as 21, and Ridley Scott's Numb3rs is doing for maths what CSI did for forensic science.

Jonathan Heeley
We have very active lessons, very hands-on. No more text books, no more standing at the front
Teacher Jonathan Heeley

"People say they love doing sudoku, so it's changing but we're fighting a climate of people who have been undersold with maths."

Mobile phones, the internet, Playstations and Google all depend on maths, he says - if people realised that, then they wouldn't poke fun at it so easily.

Family influence

Seven years ago John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and a former maths teacher, publicly bemoaned the fact there were Lord Mayors who proudly said they couldn't do maths.

He thinks nothing has changed since then and believes the problem starts in schools where pupils wrongly believe maths is too difficult.

"I think people see maths in a different light to English language. They see it as being hard but it's no harder than other subjects. This attitude makes teaching maths a more difficult job.

Some people have a genuine problem learning maths
Dyscalculia afflicts between 3% and 6% of the population
It means people who may excel at other subjects struggle with counting and identifying maths symbols

"You can teach it in a very engaging way but if parents and grandparents say how difficult they found maths, it takes a long time to turn these things around."

But creative lessons can get results, according to maths teacher Jonathan Heeley, who has won awards for his work with 11 to 16-year-olds at Rawthorpe High School in Huddersfield.

When he began there six years ago, the school was in trouble and there was a culture in which talented pupils preferred to fail for fear of being labelled swots. But in the past three years, he has helped to raise the GCSE pass rate from 12% to nearly 50%.

"It was about making maths fun and making them learn without realising it and using different ways to engage them. We have very active lessons, very hands-on. No more text books, no more standing at the front. Instead we use creative ways to get them involved."

Eminem, an unlikely ally of maths teacher Jonathan Heeley

Street culture is employed to teach, so the class raps and sings formulas, uses Eminem to demonstrate pie charts and football league tables for arithmetic. Dice and coins help explain probability and statistics, while pieces of fruit substitute for "x" in algebra.

He says he has his pupils shouting down the corridors: "I love maths!"

But pure passion is not going to sway everyone, so there's another possible solution, which is to appeal to their wallets.

The UK is moving towards a maths economy in which those with numeric skills will prosper, says Elizabeth Truss, one of the authors of the Reform report.

"So much of modern banking is based on maths. In the 1980s it was about doing a deal, now it's about understanding risk. The whole financial services industry is underpinned by very high-level maths."

So if imaginative teaching doesn't inspire the British to get their sums right, maybe the lure of an extra 10 grand a year will.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Mental arithmetic is not the same as maths which is a point that is often overlooked. I am an engineer and have a maths A-level... but I can't do mental multiplication or division. But I am good at maths and logical thinking. Lots of people get put off maths because they can't do times tables at primary school. Sad really.
Jo, Cambridge

It's not the lack of maths ability that they are probably coding but are instead alluding to left brain/right brain capabilities. Rather than appear boffin -like they are trying to give the impression that they are more comfortable in the social, gregarious, verbal or language sphere. High maths ability often equates in many peoples minds as one step away from the autism end of the spectrum
Robyn, Auckland New Zealand

I would freely admit that I am not good at maths because I have always found learning it difficult. That does not mean, however, that I can't do it.
James, Cambridge UK

This attitude has scared me for a while. I have heard so many big radio names say they can't do maths and they think this is ok. It's big celebrities telling kids that it's not "cool" to like maths, as well as parents thinking it's hard that makes this situation. Being able to tell if your gas bill is right, if that top in the sale is really a good bargain or how much the interest is going to be on your credit card are all useful and important things. How can we tell kids that it's ok not to know anything about maths?? It's just irresponsible!
Lindsey, Milton Keynes

Quite apart from the usefulness of maths, it is worth studying just for the beauty and symmetry it reveals. Someone who has never appreciated a beautiful theorem has missed as much as someone who doesn't like Wordsworth or Shakespeare.
Jeff Moreland, Southampton, UK

Perhaps we could all make an effort to reverse this. Next time someone proudly says "I'm bad at maths" respond with a cheery "Well you don't seem that thick, perhaps you should work on that a bit." Either that or sell them a loan.
Steve, Cheshire

I am 19 and currently doing Maths at Warwick University, I have always liked maths, but I remember that at school, being good at maths was a sever issue. Those who made any effort towards being good at maths and science were ostracized by the rest of the year group. I am certain that this was because of the portrayal of "nerds" and "keeners" in mainstream children s TV and film. When every day, kids are watching hours of nerds being beaten up, hated and generally victimized- you can only expect the same to happen in schools, and hence many children will make a conscious effort NOT to be good at it.
Ross Harding, coventry

Is it perhaps that people confuse poor arithmetic skills with poor mathematical skills? I find that frequently we associate being able to quickly compute large numbers with being good in math. In fact, I think more emphasis on the concepts behind math with less focus on mental computation might incite more enthusiasm. The adventure and thrill of working through a problem using mathematical logic seems overshadowed and undervalued by over-emphasis on computation. The nation would be far better off focusing on being good at mathematical reasoning and buying more calculators.
Kathryn, Cardiff

I feel that teaching is the most important factor in encouraging kids to *like* maths. We did say when I was in school, 'what good is maths, unless you want to be a maths teacher?' but our teachers were enthusiastic and we (mostly) enjoyed our lessons. Plus, it's very useful in daily life! Last week having dinner a friend of mine worked out that you got almost 25% more pie in a square pie than a round one at a restaurant - using pi!
Laura Mitchell, Lancaster, UK

Why are we so bad at maths, look at the average maths teacher who follows all these loony educational ideas. Why did I fail maths, because I refused to show my working out the problem. I got the right answer but it was still marked wrong. Hence as a teenager I gave up on maths. At the end of the day if the answer is correct, it did not matter how I got to it, as long as I did not cheat.

Mike, Southampton UK

What is with the British & the whole "It's cool to admit to be ignorant" attitude? Elitism may be a bad thing, but this popularisation of ignorance is ridiculous, as well as dangerous. Or is it a plot by a few to generate a populace who will be so clueless that they won't notice when the takeover comes?
Sharon Pearse, Portsmouth, UK

When I was doing GCSE maths, we were learning trigonometry and someone asked the teacher when it would be useful in our lives. She replied that it would be useful in passing our GCSE exam. I think that's part of the problem: that while people can see the obvious need to add/subtract/divide/multiply, most of maths seems completely abstract and largely useless to the vast majority of us. Some of Jonathan Heeley's methods, like showing practical applications such as leage tables, are needed to show students that what they're learning isn't stuff that can be dumped from the mind as soon as the summer holiday rolls around.
Olly, Bournemouth

Children will naturally acquire mathematical knowledge but they need to be inspired to enjoy it and appreciate the enormous life long benefits a solid grounding in this subject can bring. That inspiration can only come from knowledgeable parents and talented teachers. This is where effort has to be focussed. Too many children are turned off maths for ever because of the 'can't do maths but who cares it's cool' society we live in.
Jonathan, Birmingham UK

I'm great with maths. It was the only subject at school I was any good at thanks to a series of great maths teachers. 30 years on and I work with lots of numbers. All my friends & family that fall into the category of 'no good at maths' have money problems. There's a lesson there kids. Listen to the maths teacher!!!
Richard, Leeds.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific