Adam Shaw · BBC Radio 4 · Brian Butterworth · Digby Jones

Off topic – maths in the UK

Here’s an interesting interview conducted by Adam Shaw on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (18/11/2010) with Brian Butterworth, Emeritus professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Neuroscience at the University College London.
BB: “The UK is not very good at maths. We’re about average, looking at all OECD countries. So, we’re significantly worse than Australia and Canada, much worse than China and Japan, though we are a bit better than Germany and significantly better than the United States. And we know from a recent OECD report that, actually, maths ability in the population is correlated with GDP growth, so the better at maths the country is, the better their GDP growth is.”
AS: “What you’re saying is quite important here. It’s not just that as one gets richer you tend to have more time for a better education. You’re saying, if you get better at maths, that’s a major driver of economic growth?”
BB: “That’s exactly what the OECD report has found and …”
AS: “Maths more than any other subject? It’s maths that does it?”
BB: “Maths is the major component. Science is the next major component, reading a little bit … but maths particularly is important. And it’s not just raising the overall level that helps. Of course, if you raise the overall level it will help, but if you just get the lowest ten or eleven percent, which is the percentage of our population that fails to reach the OECD minimum standard at fifteen – really very simple stuff that people can’t do – if you can get people up to the minimum level, this would increase GDP growth by 0.44% per annum. Now it might not sound very much but actually, over the years, this creates an enormous improvement in GDP for the country.”
Actually, I don’t at all agree with the professor about reading being important only to a small degree. reading is an absolutely vital skill: if a person has poor reading skills, they are automatically excluded from a greater and greater number of jobs and can’t contribute to the growth of the economy, given that jobs which require no reading skills are disappearing by the thousand every month.
Still, it’s yet another wake-up call to the UK to improve standards of teaching in maths if the UK is going to compete successfully with other major economies – or, as Digby Jones put it, ‘India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner!’

2 thoughts on “Off topic – maths in the UK

  1. Reading impacts on maths; 40% of errors on maths achievement tests were found to be due to reading errors.

    Schools that take up teaching reading through sytematic, synthetic phonics find that maths scores rise throughout the school, in addition to the reading scores: '(I)n Clackmannanshire the teachers found that when the synthetic-phonics-taught children went into the second year at school, they needed to go up a level in the Maths scheme, that is, one level above what would normally be used. This was thought to be a direct effect of the children coping better with the reading requirements of the maths scheme.' (Prof Rhona Johnson, personal communication to J.Colby.

  2. This makes perfect sense, Anon, and is, I think, as you would expect.
    A number of years ago, a teaching assistant remarked to me that children taught using, in this case, linguistic phonics were able to answer questions on a test which had remained impenetrable to other whole language taught children. The maths wasn’t particularly difficult, whereas the questions were very hard to decode.
    But, I wonder how much the two areas of teaching are mutually reinforcing. For instance, children who are systematically taught to use scientific concepts, such as how the alphabetic system in English works, begin to develop a reflective consciousness that enables them to become much more independent of their immediate personal experience. So, instead of being spontaneous, they become more likely to be ‘theorists’ and are more likely to develop formal-logical thought. Of course, they also need to learn the procedural knowledge and skills through practice that are relevant to the concepts.

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