From education to employment

Maths to 18: does it add up?

Dr Thomas Hunt FE News

With maths education being highlighted by both Conservative and Labour at the recent political party conferences, what could the proposals and discussions mean for schools and teachers? Dr Thomas Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby, who leads the Mathematics Anxiety Research Group, discusses.  

Getting maths education right is essential. After all, maths attainment is related to all sorts of positive outcomes, including better health and earnings. In his speech a few months ago, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, suggested that improved maths skills will support future economic growth, pointing towards a requirement for all students to study maths to 18. This was emphasised again more recently when he announced plans to introduce a new post-16 qualification – the Advanced British Standard (reinforced recently in the King’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament), including the compulsory study of some English and maths to 18.

The Prime Minister has also spoken about the need to change the “anti-maths mindset” in the UK, targeting society’s negative view of maths. This seems at odds with reference to the UK climbing the international league tables in maths performance. Indeed, TIMMS data demonstrates this to be the case among primary school children in England, with a year-on-year rise in maths performance since 1995, and performance at both the primary and secondary school stage being greater than the world average. Nonetheless, these statistics do not marry up with the behaviour of upper secondary age pupils; according to a Nuffield Foundation study in 2010, in which 24 countries were compared, the number of 16-18 year-olds in England and Wales taking maths was far less than their international counterparts.

This was further highlighted in a government blog earlier this year in which it was pointed out that many other countries ensure that students study some sort of maths post-16. As highlighted by National Numeracy, many adults do not believe that school maths prepared them well for maths in everyday life. Thus, there may be a disconnect between pre-adult (even pre-16) maths and the way in which maths is then used throughout adulthood. It is also worth considering the difference between maths and numeracy, with the latter being defined as the use of basic maths in real-life situations.

Psychology + maths

Personally, I welcome Rishi Sunak’s emphasis on mindset when debating maths education. However, the situation is far from simple. We need to be mindful of the range and complexities of the attitudes, emotions, and beliefs involved in successful maths education and beyond. For example, being motivated is clearly important when it comes to engaging with maths at school, but what do we mean by motivation exactly? Does the current education system adequately address motivation associated with a love of the subject compared to the desire to do well because it would help one progress to a desired job or course of study? I believe Psychology has more to add to the discussion.

There is a wide array of academic literature to evidence that the range of positive and negative feelings and attitudes a person might have towards maths contributes greatly to their engagement, success, and continuation with it. Psychological factors such as resilience, self-concept, self-efficacy, growth mindset, and shame all play a vital role in maths education. In fact, our recent work showed that, across the three countries studied, having a growth mindset (the belief that one’s maths ability can be improved) was a predictor of less shame associated with one’s maths ability and performance.

An expert group has been established by the government to advise what maths content is essential post-16. It is hoped that addressing post-16 maths education will support higher levels of numeracy within the adult population. However, discussion about post-16 maths could detract from a broader discussion around maths education, including maths in the early years through primary and then secondary education. Only last month, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education Bridget Phillipson said that a Labour government would “tackle our chronic cultural problem with maths, by making sure it’s better taught at six, never mind 16”. This would see a greater focus on practical numeracy skills from a young age. Perhaps such a change would go some way towards changing the nation’s view of maths.

For many, maths is what was taught at school – one’s experience of school maths shapes one’s perception of it as a subject. I believe this is the case for maths in a way that is not comparable to other subjects. A reimagining of maths education may require a more holistic approach, partly to avoid a disconnect between the education system, the views of the general population, and the needs of employers. Work is underway through the Mathematical Futures Programme that looks at a reimagining of maths education.

Post-16 maths

Central to the discussion of post-16 maths, and indeed all maths education, should be teachers. Teachers are integral to the education system, yet the challenges they face have long been highlighted, with recent industrial action demonstrating the extent of this. Labour recently spoke of its plan to upskill primary school teachers. There have also been calls for the recruitment of specialist maths teachers and it is pleasing to see the government announce plans to introduce a new voluntary and fully-funded professional qualification for teachers leading maths in primary schools, but many will argue that secondary schools are in dire need of recruiting and keeping specialist maths teachers, with around half of secondary schools using at least some non-specialists for teaching maths.

Schools are already struggling to adequately resource support required for students with dyscalculia and other maths learning difficulties. Given that many students with dyscalculia are likely to drop maths study as soon as they can, questions should be asked about how those students are going to be supported if they are required to continue their maths education.

Maths anxiety

Among current teachers, the prevalence of maths anxiety (and anxiety about teaching maths) is sufficiently high to warrant concern, so more should be done to address this alongside potential changes to what is taught.

Parents/carers also often experience maths anxiety and negative emotions when helping with homework and children tend to perform better on maths work when interactions with parents are more positive (greater parental sensitivity and a more joyful interaction). Therefore, the value and importance of the home numeracy environment more generally should not be underestimated. Beyond the school and home environments, the Prime Minister recently spoke about the role of culture, particularly the notion of being poor at maths being socially acceptable. Addressing unhelpful tropes and stereotypes depicted in the media may help tackle negative maths attitudes.  

Talking about mindset is a step in the right direction, but we need to look at how current systems support the development of a negative mindset related to maths. This includes consideration of the whole picture – not just the nature of qualifications and associated curricula, including the range of psychological variables at play. The Multiply programme, for example, is designed to support adults to improve their numeracy skills and confidence, with the goal of improving people’s lives and labour market outcomes. Schools, parents/carers, and employers all have a role to play in developing positive attitudes towards maths within the next generation. In particular, to mould and support career aspirations we might need to look closely at the way in which maths is depicted and embedded across the wider curriculum. Changing unhelpful perceptions of maths as being irrelevant to many occupations could be one way to engender greater interest and willingness to take note and engage with maths education.

The University of Derby’s Mathematics Anxiety Research Group’s recent ‘This is maths’ project targeted Year 9 pupils in more than 20 schools across the UK. We aimed to support a more positive attitude towards maths, including acknowledgement of the relevance of maths to a variety of jobs that may be of interest to young people. We hope activities such as this will go some way towards a culture shift in maths attitudes, supporting, among other things, interdisciplinarity, engagement, attainment, and social mobility.

Looking to the future

It might be some time yet before we know exactly what maths to 18 really looks like, but one thing is clear – it is not just a matter of getting the content right. Replacing A-levels and T-levels represents a considerable change to what we are used to. If such changes do come to fruition, we may still need to address what is at the core of society’s views on maths. Content and perceived relevance are important, but maybe there is an opportunity to consider some of the longstanding, engrained approaches to maths education that we rarely question; the issue of quick maths for instance and the way in which maths is typically separated from other subjects at school. We need to ensure that the factors that underpin a progressive fear of maths are not simply masked by a surface change to qualifications.

Earlier in the year there were many negative emotional reactions to Rishi Sunak’s proposal of maths to 18, including responses from several celebrities on social media. It is interesting that the proposal to include some English to 18 has yet to incite similar reactions. The psychological aspects of maths study, at the micro and macro level, should not be underestimated. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to make maths count in the eyes of the public.

By Dr Thomas Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby

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