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How do you solve a problem like maths?

17 June 2015

'The UK is facing a national maths crisis, and a revolution in the way the subject is taught will be required to solve it,' wrote Steve Munby in the Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2015.

The UK has a major problem with young people and maths. In this country, unlike almost every other industrialised society, the study of some form of mathematics is not compulsory for students aged 16-18.

In England, most young people can opt out of maths after GCSE and that's exactly what hundreds of thousands of them do, including many of our most talented students. This is an important group in our society. Non-mathematical A-level students constitute the majority of future university students and the majority of our future entrepreneurs, managers and professionals.

We need to ask ourselves, can we feasibly compete with the best in the world unless our own brightest students typically have mathematical proficiency beyond GCSE? Mathematics and the ability to apply maths to the real world has always been important. But conducting our day to day business in a modern, digitised, growing economy demands practical maths skills of us all.

So what should we do as a country? This is not just about reviewing regulations and requirements. We also need to think long and hard about why so many of our brightest students choose not to continue with mathematics. We need to understand this better but it seems clear that many of them do not consider mathematics to be very interesting or relevant.

Over the past year, CfBT has been working with the Department for Education launching a new qualification that's intended to make mathematics more meaningful and engaging for 16-18 year olds. It is called Core Maths and it is a Level 3 qualification for post-GCSE school and college students who want to continue to study mathematics further in a practical and problem-solving context. Maths should not be seen as an isolated subject. The next priority should be persuading all A Level students that they need to continue studying maths.

For me the lesson from the first stages of the Core Maths project is that if we teach maths in the right way we have a chance to both transform attitudes towards the subject and also to equip young people with the skills needed for professional excellence later in their lives.

That is an important prize and one we should seize.

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