A government report lead by ex-Countdown presenter Carol Vorderman has suggested that studying maths should remain compulsory until the age of 18. The report, commissioned by David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove, highlighted the fact that nearly half of GCSE students achieve lower than grade C, with an enormous 85% choosing not to continue studying the subject any further.
Vorderman suggested that the problem affected a huge number of UK adults, describing a quarter of the population as “functionally innumerate”. She claimed they were likely to struggle in their professional and personal lives as a direct result of their lack of mathematical skills, and warned that those who fail in the subject at school will forever “remain mathematically on the scrap heap”.
However the recommendations of the report have raised eyebrows, with its suggestion that maths should be taught compulsorily to all students until the age of 18. Whilst there are clearly problems with the education system, with 300,000 16 year olds leaving school each year without a functional grasp of mathematics, the government’s plans to make maths compulsory to 18 for those who fail at GCSE have been criticised as short-sighted and unrealistic.
Two extra years of studying the subject, with increasingly difficult topics and complex constructs seem unlikely to help those who have already fallen behind, and critics have suggested that it would be much more constructive to focus on more support for weaker students earlier on. Vorderman does address the issue of early-years maths teaching in the report, but her findings are vague and critical, accusing primary school teachers of being unqualified to teach the subject and claiming that the maths SAT exam provides absolutely “no benefit to the children taking it”.
Some recommendations made by the report have been met with a more positive response, such as the suggestion of a new maths course at GCSE level offering ‘functional mathematics’ such as percentage calculations and personal finance for those students not planning to continue the subject to A-Level. But practical considerations, such as how such a system, with an entirely new syllabus, should be implemented, or how to prevent this ‘lower tier’ course from being disadvantageous to later university applications, do not seem to have been addressed.
The conclusion of the report is rather melodramatic, announcing that it “does not make comfortable reading” and openly admitting that its tone is “aspirational”, whilst rather sanctimoniously referring vaguely to “making the teaching better”. It has led some critics to question why the government chose to commission Vorderman, a television presenter who graduated from university with only a third class degree in engineering, for the job of leading a report that might have benefitted from the expertise and leadership of a member of the teaching profession. It is certainly unlikely to alleviate the unprecedented lack of support for the government’s education policies, which recently culminated in the National Union of Teachers announcing a vote of no confidence in Education Secretary Michael Gove. Whether it will have a positive impact on our national numeracy level remains to be seen.