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Without maths, people are excluded from society

Better mathematics education is one the best investments we can make towards our future.

By Andreas Schleicher

This opinion piece is part of a debate on whether maths should be the biggest priority in secondary education, based on the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposals to make maths compulsory up to age 18. Read the other side of the debate here.

How a society develops and uses the knowledge and skills of its people is among the chief determinants of its prosperity. Mathematics plays a central role in this. Findings from the OECD’s “Survey of Adult Skills” shows that individuals with poor maths skills are severely limited in their access to better-paid and more rewarding jobs. For no other measured skill was this relationship stronger.

Digitalisation is amplifying this pattern; as new industries rise, others will fall, and it is often mathematic skills that provide a buffer to weather these shocks. We used to treat maths as a subject for specialists who became scientists or engineers, but today it is hard to imagine a future-proof profession that does not require people to reason quantitatively or have a profound understanding of concepts like uncertainty, change and relationships, and space and shape.

And it does not end there – the “Survey of Adult Skills” shows that people with poor maths skills are not just more vulnerable in a changing job market, they are also more likely to feel excluded in society and see themselves as powerless in political processes. A better maths education seems to be one of the best investments we can make for our future.

Making mathematics an optional extra has also become one of the biggest social dividers in school systems, with parents from privileged backgrounds knowing about the advantages of a good maths education while students from disadvantaged backgrounds often opt out of this unpopular subject as soon as they can.

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Will compulsory maths education solve this problem or just prolong the misery? Most children love mathematics: it is about playing with numbers, understanding complex phenomena in the real world, testing new ideas, thinking creatively, and figuring out cause and effect. But as students grow older, many turn away from this early love, and consider it to be an abstract world of formulas and equations that is unrelated to their lives and dreams.

That has little to do with the subject, and more to do with how we teach it. The mathematics we learn in school is quickly memorised and then forgotten; it is unrelated to the real world around us, and often unrelated to the principal ideas of mathematics. Amid all the facts and figures, we too often lose a sense of what it means to think like a mathematician and to apply mathematical theories to real-world problems.

If we were running a supermarket, rather than a school, and day after day and year after year we saw a large proportion of customers leave the shop without buying anything, we would surely change our inventory. We need to do this in maths education too.

It can be done differently. In 2012, 10 per cent of the most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai scored better in mathematics than 80 per cent of students in the UK. And when asked what their favourite subject was, many responded that it was mathematics. The easiest and arguably most effective way to encourage more people to study the subject is to teach it in more relevant, engaging and applied ways.

This opinion piece originally appeared in our Spotlight print edition on Skills, published on Friday 3 February 2022. Read the supplement in full here.

Read more on Education:

Education is the cornerstone of a strong economy

Why nobody wants to be a teacher anymore

Why have educational attainment gaps not closed in 20 years?

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