Anthony Seldon: A maths challenge we must answer

Share
Related Topics

Here's a little quiz to amuse yourselves and your children in the midst of this long summer holiday. Which of the following countries does not require its 16- to 18-year-old school students to study maths?

Is it Australia, Germany, the US, Japan, Singapore or England? No prizes for the right answer.

For years, Carol Vorderman has been beating the drum about maths and saying we need to take it far more seriously in this country. Yesterday, her report, commissioned by the Conservative Party, concluded that pupils should study maths up to the age of 18. She is right. A good working knowledge of maths is essential for all young people, and will be vital for Britain's economic competitiveness if we are to prevail against the highly numerically literate young men and women pouring out of schools in their millions across Asia.

Our education system is controlled and shaped by the stranglehold of producers: schools, exam boards, universities, local and central government and unions. They all talk a good game in recognising that our schools and universities are becoming inert exam factories, with students taught to the test in a narrow range of subjects by teachers who have sometimes lost sight of the difference between exam instruction and a liberal and creative education, to say nothing of genuine scholarship.

The status quo may have been sufficient for the 20th century – actually, I don't think it was – but it is certainly hopelessly redundant for the requirements of the 21st century. It's not just the lack of maths where we are getting it wrong. We are one of the very few countries that does not require its 16- to 18-year-olds to study their own national language and literature, a science and a second language.

The irony is that Britain has a superb exam system which achieves this very breadth of education, as well as Carol Vorderman's requirement of compulsory maths. It's called the International Baccalaureate (IB), and it is offered by some 150 imaginative state and independent schools.

Yet at the very time that the Coalition Government should be following the lead of Tony Blair in 2006 and recommending a wholesale expansion of this programme, we have no such clear lead, and the IB is under considerable pressure in Britain.

It is a qualification that is academically rigorous and, in contrast to A-Levels, where there are now three times as many top grades awarded as 20 years ago, there has been zero, repeat zero, grade inflation during its 40-year existence. The IB is growing rapidly in India, China and Brazil, and it is exactly what our young people need.

There are two reasons why this programme is under threat here. Running it alongside A-Levels is expensive for schools; and sixth formers know that, in contrast to A-Levels, studying for this qualification will require harder work, more independent study, much less "spoon feeding", and no reassuring comfort of regular retakes.

Universities are also to blame. Many fail to understand the difficulty of the programme or the benefits of an IB-educated student. One of our students this year with the top 45 points (achieved by only 0.3 per cent of those taking the exam) was turned down by Oxbridge. Incredible!

So let all British sixth-formers study maths. By doing so, they will not only understand far more deeply the complexity of the universe, but also learn how to think at a much deeper level. The popularity of Marcus du Sautoy on television and in print shows the appetite the young have for this challenge. Michael Gove has said that "mathematical knowledge is the most precious gift an education can bestow". Very good. Let's hear him and David Willetts give a clarion call championing the International Baccalaureate.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace