Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and his book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.
OECD evidence suggests that standards in English education overall are quite good. We are not a world leader, and could do better – but nor are we a laggard and certainly not at the bottom of the league. However, there is one clear area where we are way behind – that is, levels of numeracy. We have a real problem with Maths. So amongst the controversy about all the Prime Minister’s other policy announcements of the past week, we should not lose sight of an area he is absolutely right to focus on.
There is an striking contrast with literacy. The battle for synthetic phonics, led above all by Nick Gibb, does appear to be yielding results with improvements in literary. And if you look at everything from the vitality of our cultural industries to the global reach of our language, we are clearly a nation skilled in and comfortable with words.
But it is a different story with Maths. Many other countries are equally comfortable with numeracy as a basic skill accessible to all. But we tend to regard it as some esoteric mystery – all rather scary and requiring special powers. This aversion to Maths matters for many reasosn. There is a lively debate about the personal economic returns to different disciplines, but one result is absolutely clear – the more Maths you do for longer, the higher your earnings. This is just part of a much wider case for maths, in which comprehension of numbers and their analysis is key to functioning in the modern world.
We need to boost our Maths performance at all stages of education. One reason it hasn’t been is that there is no Maths equivalent of synthetic phonics which Conservatives can latch on to with confidence. If anything, it may be the kind of Maths advocated by Conrad Wolfram, which recognises the reality that most people have permanent access to a calculator and computer on their phones, and that what matters is not numerical precision but grasp of the underlying fundamentals. If children are to stick with Maths for longer, there needs to be genuine fresh thinking about the design of courses, so they do not just leave them with a deep terror of algebra.
And this needs to stretch all the way up to universities. There are students who gave up maths at the age of 16 and arrive at university and suddenly find they need Maths after all. They study politics, and find they are reading political science papers applying regression analysis to voting data. They do social policy, and find that if you really want to tackle poverty it helps to be able to find your way through the data on households below average incomes. Some universities introduced an emergency maths services for panicking students facing these sort of problems and used it to reintroduce them to Maths. So, as a Minister, I funded the Sigma programme of help with Maths and Statistics across our universities, in partnership with Nuffield Foundation. It has performed very well.
But as well as these sort of interventions at different stages of education, the Prime Minister is also rightly focussing on the key weakness of English education – early specialisation. We end up trapped in deep divide between arts on the one hand and maths and sciences on the other because many teenagers are forced to choose between them at a ridiculously early age.
Restricting 16-18 year olds to three A levels drives early specialisation, and makes English education narrower and more specialised than anywhere else in Europe. The Prime Minister is right to want to change this.
Labour tried to do so with the Tomlinson Report back in 2004, but they botched it. They decided not to go for ambitious reform, but instead promised that the international baccalaureate would be available in every local authority. The baccalaureate is an excellent, rigorous programme that provides teenagers with a much wider range of subject knowledge and skills- including, of course, Maths.
However, the baccalaureate has shrunk in England, not grown. The reason is that universities still want to recruit young specialists who have done A levels directly feeding in to a specific course, and they set a low value on international baccalaureate qualifications. So if you want to do Physics or English at a Russell Group university, you are likely to find yourself penalised for not having a full physics or English A level, despite the much wider range you will have studied if you have done the Baccalaureate.
The answer is to accept that our university courses should look more like those in other countries and assume less specialist prior knowledge. At the moment, England produces some of the world’s youngest graduates – we specialise, early so as to get education over early. Maybe the arrival of the Government’s four year life long learning loan is an opportunity for change.
The Prime Minister is right to open up these key issues. This is a debate worth having.