Anthony Seldon: A maths challenge we must answer

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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

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