Hamish McRae: Primary school maths whiz kids are set up for life

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The Independent Online

An important, if troubling, bit of research has just been published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, backed with some government money.

It shows that 10-year-olds who are good at mathematics earn significantly more once they reach their thirties than those who are not. The IFS took a large group of children born in April 1970, then looked at their maths and English scores 10 years later. Then, they looked at their earnings at the ages of 30, 34 and 38.

The findings showed that those who were in the top 15 per cent of maths scores at age 10, earntd on average 7.3 per cent more at 30 – equivalent to £2,100 a year – than the child who scored the average in that class, even adjusting for all other factors. Those who did similarly well in English earned 1.9 per cent – or £550 – more than the middle-ranker. So, being good at English is helpful, but being good at maths is even better.

The IFS says this suggests that employers value maths skills and are prepared to bid for people who have them, and it therefore concludes that we need to invest more in lifting children's performance in maths.

This makes sense, but also carries the worry that if 10-year-olds happen to be bad at maths, they are disadvantaged through life. It would thus follow that having a bad maths teacher at primary school can really damage people's chances, while a great one can lift children up for the rest of their lives.

The task for educators is huge, and clear objectives are a help. But, if numeracy is more important in the job market than literacy, what conclusions should we draw?