Tuesday, February 23rd.

I loved maths at school. I studied it to A-level and enjoyed the more mathematical aspects of my degree.  I think that, as a country, it would be better if there were many more people who enjoyed the subject and felt confident with it.

However, I was deeply uncomfortable on watching Channel 4’s two-part Dispatches programme, “Kids Can’t Count”, which finished last night. My unhappiness centred not on what was revealed – the problems/challenges facing maths teaching have been known for a long time – but with the nature of the reporting.

Having been prepared to give the programme the benefit of the doubt in its first week, I came to the view after watching yesterday’s instalment that this was –I know this might be stating the obvious, but bear with me – just sensationalism, offering little context and serving up a message of easy teacher-bashing which will have offered few insights for the audience other than “our schools are rubbish”. I think the general public deserves a lot better and that if this is the standard of debate and insight into what is really going on in our public services, we really are struggling.

The overall tone was of doom-mongering about the state of maths understanding in our schools system, which, as I said, is always a serious issue. But the analysis of the problem, and what to do about it, was shallow and completely uncurious.

For instance, although the programmes wheeled out statistics for the proportion of 11-year-olds who do not reach the Government’s “expected” level in maths tests, they failed to put them in context. There was a brief mention that the figures for those achieving to the Government’s expectations are higher than they were in the mid-1990s, not mentioning that this suggests, if taken at face value, a transformation in maths standards that few other countries have achieved. Having stated the fact that there had been an improvement, it then simply moved on to report that progress on these statistics has stalled in recent years, which is true. There was no mention that the Government’s “expected” level in the tests was originally defined as what the average child should achieve.

One perspective was also missing: results in one well-known set of international tests show that England’s 10-year-olds had the most improved scores of any of the countries taking these tests in the years 1995 to 2007. Clearly, I don’t think results from any testing programme should be held up as anywhere near infallible. But I think this fact should have been included, in the interests of balance.

Lack of any attempt to get a countervailing view to the sense that things were going to the dogs was apparent throughout. Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s who was probably the most prominent interviewee and complained about his recruits’ lack of mathematical understanding, was allowed to make the point that, in his day, ‘O’-level maths papers featured a non-calculator paper, implying it might be a good idea to return to this. The programme failed to tell viewers that non-calculator papers are a feature of current GCSEs, and that national tests for 11-year-olds have a “mental maths” test, in which children have to do calculations in their heads.

The programme also included unchallenged complaints that England suffers compared to our competitors in that young people are not required to take maths beyond the age of 16. This is a valid argument, of course, but again, it needs context. No subjects are compulsory beyond the age of 16 in this country, and freedom of choice has been arguably the defining feature of our post-16 system, argued for very strongly by its defenders; certainly attempts at changing the A-level system towards more compulsion have been fraught with difficulty, not least because of tradition: youngsters have had freedom at 16 whether or not to stay in the education system and changing that is difficult. This is not to say that it is impossible to reform, just that it’s not quite as simple as the programme implied. Why was nobody allowed to make this point, or offer a counter-view?

Overall, I watched the programme with a sense of growing incredulity that it had not sought to investigate its subject matter properly. Bashing the education system is easy, but why was Dispatches so reluctant to find out precisely what was going wrong, on a national scale, if it is? What was the best evidence as to why a pupil could go through school without a better mathematical understanding, a phenomenon which seems to have been going on for a very long time, and not in this country alone? I would submit that no-one, be it politicians or educators, are going out deliberately to harm or undermine pupils’ mathematical understanding.  So if their strategies were not working, why were they not?

We were offered few glimpses of any answers, beyond a survey of 150 teachers which suggested that their mathematical knowledge might not be up to scratch, (which I will admit, if the survey was representative, was an interesting and newsworthy finding). But could this really be solved at a stroke by increasing the maths qualification requirements for new teachers?

The programmes included extensive sections with a maths consultant working in what looked like a skilled way with a school to make the subject more lively. Last night, Carol Vorderman’s replacement on Countdown was featured trying again to liven things up. The pupils seemed enthused and there seemed to be an impact on test results. But it is a well-known phenomenon of education research that experts going into small groups of schools and pouring expertise and attention towards them can have an effect. The problem is that it is often difficult to replicate these approaches on a large, country-wide scale. Again, I wanted to know if research had been tried “livening up” lessons on a large scale in England, and if so, what the results had been.

In fact, the Government did introduce a national numeracy strategy into state schools in 1998. It seems to have had an effect on results. There seemed scant reference to this;  if there was, I missed it. If it had been a failure, in what way, I wondered.

There was, then, very little discussion about the detail of what was wrong with maths teaching in England, apart from the vague sense that things were not exciting enough. I did also spot one glancing reference to what could be seen to be a problem. A child was pictured doing an arithmetic exercise, and Rachel Riley, from Countdown, remarked that they seemed to being led to the answer by the calculating aid they were using, and that this was a problem. Again, if it was a problem, was this a one-off with this particular resource, or a nationwide issue? The implication was the latter, but we were not actually told.

The first programme did feature a discussion of the problems of teaching to Sats, with comments from teachers and the maths consultant. But, again, there was no real investigation into this, perhaps because the figures on which the programme were hung – the proportion of pupils not reaching level four in the tests – rely on using Sats as a valid measure of underlying mathematical ability. What if pupils, either fed up or stressed out by the weeks of revision, were underperforming in the tests?  

You could argue that I’m being ridiculous. This was a prime-time documentary, not an academic paper, and all this nuance could just have swamped viewers. But I think there is a real problem, here. And I think all of us deserve better: this is not a national newspaper with a political viewpoint which is clear to its readers. It is a broadcaster which is, if I understand this correctly (I’m no media specialist), ultimately a public body.

As I say, I don’t think the documentary enlightens viewers in any way in searching out answers to questions such as: what is the true scale of the problem, if there is one, why have things been going wrong and what – in a sense which goes beyond the effects in a single classroom – can be done about it? That’s a real shame, because there is no doubt that this is a serious subject and a better analysis could have been really powerful in shining light on precisely what needs to improve. But the only reaction you were supposed to have was that our schools are terrible, most teachers don’t know what they’re doing and why can’t employers get the education service they need? It’s probably a version of “Oh Dearism”, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8moePxHpvok, a term coined by the filmmaker Adam Curtis in relation to foreign affairs, but, I think, relevant here. Instead  of enlightening viewers, we are instead encouraged to just look at a problem and think “that’s terrible, isn’t it?”. It’s completely disempowering.

There is something else going on. There is something arguably quite sinister, and authoritarian, in arguments which take a simple, seemingly uncontestable proposition, such as the notion that our children need better maths skills, and then move from that to say that things have to change, and have to change in the way that the person arguing for them – in this case, the documentary-makers, in advocating more lively maths teaching – says.

Because the premise would appear to be almost inarguable, people can be encouraged to go along with the particular conclusion being put forward. Arguably, this is education’s central problem. Standards are never high enough. Teachers are never good enough. Therefore, we must change the system, is the argument. And anyone who argues against this is just defending the status quo and does not care that standards are not high enough.

And hence we have endless change and reform, with all its attendant problems. But it is not a rational debate when people are not taking time to really understand what is going wrong, to work out what has worked and what hasn’t, and then to move on.

Far easier simply just to moan: “Oh dear. Something must be done.”


  1. Here’s another of my left-of-field answers. Delete it if you wish, Warwick.

    Yes, we all know that many employers justifiably complain about kids leaving school without necessary maths skills for their particular industry. Most of us oldies have noticed that a lot of kids would be able to do a helluva lot more mental maths if they only knew their tables. But there’s something else I’ve noticed while invigilating a lot of exams taken by external students from other countries in Europe. The Europeans are interested in their subject. Shock horror – at the end of the exam they say things like, “Did you enjoy question B?” and “What answer did you get for question 6?”

    British kids never want to discuss the exam or subject ever again. They call fellow students swots if they are seen reading a text book or heard discussing a school subject. The anti-education ethos in the UK is our core problem and it’s endemic.

    A couple of decades ago, the Beeb (no doubt supported by some govt dept) started The Bill series which blatantly attempted to correct the anti-police ethos in the UK. Most cop dramas are helpful in that they show the police to be human, but The Bill appeared to have an agenda. To a great extent it succeeded, especially among younger kids. On the education front, Grange Hill was a great series, at least at first, especially when it addressed certain problems experienced by students. But it never successfully addressed the problem of the study-is-shameful ethos.

    Maybe it’s time we had a new popular series on TV with an agenda to convince students that study is interesting, and that only dorks call a reading student a swot.

    I guess that’s it.

  2. The government’s maths strategy has been botched, and this has caused knock-on problems that schools are being pressurised to deal with. The solution is to teach calculation skills more effectively at the outset and then teach problem solving. Applying problem solving in the process of teaching calculation is depriving children of the calculation skills they need in order to solve the problems. And by teaching effectively, I mean making the basis of all of the work very clear, and then practising.

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