Amid the sound and fury generated by this month’s Budget, one new measure introduced by the Chancellor went by almost without comment – George Osborne’s proposal for the mandatory teaching of maths up to the age of 18.
I recently finished school, am reasonably bright and, in educational terms, have been lucky. But Osborne’s measure means students younger than me will have a certain advantage. Being compelled to study maths for longer, even if they don’t wish to, can only have positive effects on their education, and ultimately their future life chances.
The headline aspect of this policy, and the fundamental idea of compulsion, is not obviously attractive: in this country and in general, policymakers and the public like people to be able to choose what they want to do, especially in education, where generations of students have preferred to play to their strengths. (I certainly did, and so did everyone I know.) But this makes many of us unfortunately narrow our focus: we become excessively specialised.
In my own case, this manifests itself in a considerable bias towards the humanities, and in a corresponding neglect of the natural sciences and maths. (My friends who study the sciences scorn my ignorance on this front. Though this is hypocritical because they know little of the humanities, they are right).
My situation makes me feel decidedly ignorant and rather untrained. Whereas I could once enumerate circle theorems, which I learnt studying for a maths GSCE, I cannot now recall a single one. I am unable, through lack of practice and a lack of serious training, to perform fairly basic calculations in my head. I cannot talk with more mathematically-minded friends about their interests in anything other than general terms and I do not have knowledge of a great deal of humanity’s finest accomplishments.
The scientist and novelist CP Snow said in his Rede lecture of 1959 (“The Two Cultures”) that many literary types could not describe the second law of thermodynamics. But, he argued, asking them to do so is ‘the scientific equivalent’ of asking them ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’ He criticised the failures of British education of the time, which he thought valued the humanities above the sciences and promoted unwelcome specialisation. He said that ‘the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into [science] as their neolithic ancestors would have had.’
The same is as true for mathematical literacy today, which is surely at least as important, both for its everyday applications and its wider effects. The practice of maths promotes logical thinking and a methodical way of solving problems many of us lack.
I would not have done well in maths A Level, but I would have benefited greatly from being made to study it all the same. Further study of the subject would have deepened my understanding and increased my retention, and it will certainly do so for many students in the future. Despite the divisiveness of much of the Budget, this measure – for pragmatic reasons as well as high-minded ones – deserves non-partisan support from all sides.
This piece was originally published in Prospect.