I first lost my nerve with maths when it came to five sevens. I was about, well, seven at the time. It didn’t matter how often I stared at the seven times table on paper, read it out loud and then tried to commit it to memory, it just wouldn’t stick. It still outfoxes me to this day. I’m not embarrassed to admit in a national newspaper that I had to use a few fingers to work out that the answer is 35 (it is 35, isn’t it?), because I know I’m not the only one.
At school, maths lessons prompted more panic attacks than eureka moments. So what would the sobbing eight-year-old me, sitting at the bottom of the stairs and stubbornly refusing to go to school for fear of the maths test ahead, have made of George Osborne’s Budget plans to extend mathematics teaching right up to the age of the 18? I think a tantrum would have inevitable – and sensible adults, with their own interminable, incomprehensible maths classes long behind them, are channelling that childlike anger in denouncing the “cult” of mathematics in response.
Speaking on the BBC Today programme yesterday, journalist Simon Jenkins set about to destroy an enthusiastic Marcus du Sautoy – a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford – by publicly trashing his academic discipline and questioning the value of an extra two years of maths for all.
“Maths teaching is bonkers. About 0.1 per cent of the population are going to need differential calculus,” Jenkins said. “It is a deeply useless subject for most people. It is ludicrous to make it compulsory.”
I expect a cheer went up across the breakfast tables of Britain. “There’s no point, when was the last time you ever used Pythagoras’ theorem?” is the common refrain of the bored teenager. But Jenkins and his fellow critics are wrong and, on this rare occasion, Osborne is quite right.
Maths is a uniquely important subject for today’s school pupils. It’s not a dead language of ancients, a useless modern day Latin, prized by school masters alone; it’s a system of thought that shapes the mind in useful ways, helps us to explain the world, and provides the tools by which the future we’re heading into will be created.
With the onward march of automation and digitisation, virtually every career today’s maths pupils will enter will require knowledge of how to manipulate and interpret data, how to use statistics and how to calculate risk. Jenkins relies on the luxury of age when he concludes that maths is just “not necessary” for most people. He hasn’t got to spend the next 60 years working in an economy based on algorithms.
Mathematics isn’t really about numbers at all; it’s about ways of thinking, and it’s about ideas. The irony is that I was actually rather good at maths – I just didn’t realise until it was too late. At university, required to learn how to write propositional logic (a way of expressing an argument in notation, similar to algebra), I finally clocked that mathematics was deeply fascinating, actually useful and doesn’t require you to be good at arithmetic at all.
If Osborne has his way, and every child must sit through double maths on a Friday afternoon until they’re old enough to head to the pub afterwards, then the teaching of the mathematics must change. Not all 17-year-olds need know how to solve quadratic equations, but there’s a form of maths that’s useful and comprehensible for everyone. Forget times tables, it’s about time we were teaching pivot tables.
I’d never have chosen to study mathematics until I was 18 because I assumed my natural talents lay elsewhere. But I’m glad next generation won’t be free to make the same mistake and throw away this crucial skill just before they grasp what it’s really about.