Introduction and general comments
Many of the reports explain why mathematics matters, why is it important that we produce young people who are good at mathematics and why it has become increasingly urgent that we address the problems with mathematics education.
It is generally agreed that ‘[m]athematics is a critical skill for all, including to those who have not achieved a Grade C at GCSE by age 16’ (Hodgen & Marks, 2013, p. 1). Further, an argument is put forward that in today’s world of ‘rapid change’ (ACME, 2011a, p. 1), particularly in terms of technological change, the demand for mathematical skills is increasing (Burghes, 2011; Norris, 2012; Vorderman, Porkess, Budd, Dunne, & Rahman-hart, 2011).
Mathematics is also important as a school subject because not only is it needed for the sciences (Norris, 2012), but it also provides access to undergraduate courses in, for example, engineering, psychology, sciences and social sciences (Norris, 2012). The argument is made that mathematics, and in particular statistics, is important even for non STEM subjects at university (ACME, 2011a; British Academy, 2012; Porkess, 2012).
The main arguments for the importance of mathematics, however, fall into three further areas: mathematics is a core skill for all adults in life generally; a mathematically well educated population will contribute to the country’s economic prosperity; and mathematics is important for its own sake.
Mathematics is a core skill for life
It seems to be generally agreed that in order for adults to function (reasonably well) in an increasingly complex world, they require a basic level of numeracy (All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education, 2011; Burghes, 2012; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013; Gove in foreword to Vorderman et al., 2011). Numeracy, or mathematical knowledge, is seen as a crucially important (Ofsted, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011) which is increasingly necessary in a range of life-skills, such as personal finance, (e.g. choosing a mortgage, budgeting, phone contracts) and data-handling. (All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education, 2011; Norris, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011)
The importance of the need for all citizens to understand data and view statistics critically is strongly made (British Academy, 2012; Porkess, 2012). The argument is that more and more debate in society rests on statistical arguments, particularly with increasing amounts of data within a digital society, and an understanding of these arguments is necessary for informed debate and decision making (British Academy, 2012; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013; Porkess, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011). For example, the British Academy (2012) states that:
Without statistical understanding citizens, voters and consumers cannot play a full part. To call politicians, media and business to account, we need the skills to know when spurious arguments are being advanced. (p. 7)
There seems to be little doubt that mathematical skills are increasingly needed in the workplace. Hodgen and Marks (Hodgen & Marks, 2013) distinguish between the sophisticated mathematics used by specialists with degrees in mathematics or with substantial mathematics in specialised workplaces and the use of lower level mathematics in the workplace.
Mathematics is clearly important in the first of these, and it seems that there is an increase in these sorts of jobs (Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2012). The point is made that mathematics (STEM) subjects can lead to a wide choice of good careers (Finegold, 2011; Porkess, 2012).
In terms of the second, it seems that quantitative skills are important in a very wide range of jobs (ACME, 2011a; Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Norris, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011).
General numerical skills are valued in some sectors, but in many they are seen as essential. It seems that using statistics and probability effectively is integral to a variety of tasks such as costing, risk assessment and quality control and modelling and problem solving are becoming more increasingly important. (ACME, 2011a; British Academy, 2012; Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Vorderman et al., 2011).
Importantly, ‘People in the workplace need to be able to make sense of the mathematics they are using if they are to avoid making mistakes in the workplace. (Hodgen & Marks, 2013, p. 1).
While the paragraphs above were concerned making an argument for the importance of mathematics for the individual’s job prospects, clearly creating and filling these jobs also contributes to the country’s economic prosperity. However, the argument for the importance of mathematics in terms of economic prosperity is further expanded.
Mathematics is key to economic prosperity
It is assumed that the country wants to remain competitive in the world economy and suggested that ‘mathematics is crucial for economic development and for technical progress’ (ACME, 2011b, p. 4). This point is made in various ways, both in terms of mathematics more generally (Lampl in the foreword to Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Ofsted, 2011, 2012; Gove in the foreword to Vorderman et al., 2011,Whitehouse & Burdett, 2013), STEM education (Archer, Osborne, & DeWitt, 2012; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013) and in terms of specific mathematics such as the ability to make sense of data (Clark-Wilson, Oldknow, & Sutherland, 2011; Porkess, 2012). In the report STEM education for 14-19 year olds, for example, the authors state that:
‘In its 2011 report, The Plan for Growth, the Government pronounced education “the foundation of future economic success”. It highlighted the importance of science and mathematics and the key role to be played by STEM in driving innovation, growth and economic recovery.’ (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013, p. 1)
It seems that driving innovation and growth relies on cutting-edge research and ambitious business and industry. The point is made that ‘to meet the globally competitive ambitions of a knowledge-based economy’ (Nurse in the foreword to Royal Society, 2011, p. vii) the quality and size of the ‘pool’ of young people engaged in mainstream mathematics and science education is crucial. (Royal Society, 2011)
It is argued that it is from this pool that researchers in innovative science and technology research, are taken. Even within the softer sciences, quantitative methods are key to both ‘blue skies’ research and effective evidence-based policy (British Academy, 2012). Further, quantitative skills are needed by researchers in the social sciences and humanities to enable effective engagement with STEM researchers, both within interdisciplinary research teams and in general intellectual dialogue. (British Academy, 2012).
It is also this pool that feeds the supply of scientists needed within industry to perform the most demanding roles in areas that are crucial to the ongoing economic prosperity of the country. As Vorderman et al imply, mathematical skills underpin the attributes such as problem solving which are of critical importance within modern industrial environments, such as the pharmaceutical industry. (Vorderman et al., 2011)
The majority of the reports address the ‘here and now’, and while it is perhaps obvious that the country should be building capacity for the economic prosperity of future generations, this is only sometimes explicitly stated. For example, in the Royal Society of the Arts report, Norris states that
‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries are becoming increasingly central to economic competitiveness and growth and will provide many of the jobs of to- morrow for young people.’ (Norris, 2012, p. 4)
However, some reports argue for the importance of mathematics education (see below); in most there is perhaps an assumption that the mathematical education of future generations is of crucial importance for the continued prosperity of the nation. However, the report by Vorderman et al has as its focus mathematics education in general, and it makes the strong suggestion that, unless mathematics education is improved, the country will be ‘left behind’ in terms of economic growth.
Mathematics is beautiful
A few reports suggest that mathematics is important for its own sake, and that for many people, mathematics is important because it is inherently beautiful and elegant.
It is generally agreed that mathematics makes an essential contribution to a good rounded education, playing a vital role in our culture and civilisation. (ACME, 2011a; Vorderman et al., 2011). Without a sound understanding of mathematics appreciation of a range of other educational disciplines such as music, the sciences, geography and economics is compromised. (Vorderman et al., 2011)
A further argument is made that mathematics is important because it encourages and develops important ways of thinking. For example, the Vorderman report states that mathematics is ‘critical in fostering logical and rigorous thinking’ (Vorderman et al., 2011, p. 11)
Mathematics education is important
The reports chosen address mathematics education. However, interestingly there is much less written in them about why mathematics education is important (as opposed to mathematics). Rather it seems that it is assumed that improving mathematics education will somehow solve the perceived problems in mathematics in this country. (The problems are discussed below).
Some reports, however, discuss the importance of mathematics education explicitly. For example, Ofsted (2011) claims that ensuring that children have a good grounding in mathematics will equip children for their future lives by developing the skills valued in industry and university. Vorderman et al hint at the importance of mathematics education:
The effect of mathematics education on an economy is understood in many leading industrialised nations, including those of the Pacific Rim, whose students perform particularly well in international comparisons. (Vorderman et al., 2011, p. 3)
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education suggests that ‘the country has a duty to equip our young people properly through education to make informed financial decisions…. We believe that financial education is a long term solution to the national problem of irresponsible borrowing and personal insolvency. (2011, p. 4)
ACME. (2011a). Mathematical Needs Mathematics in the workplace and in Higher Education. London.
ACME. (2011b). Mathematical Needs of Learners. London.
All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education. (2011). Financial Education & the Curriculum. London.
Archer, L., Osborne, J., & DeWitt, J. (2012). The Case for Early Education about STEM careers. London.
British Academy. (2012). Society Counts: Quantitative Skills in the Social Sciences (A Position Paper) (pp. 1–12). London.
Burghes, D. (2011). International comparative study in mathematics teacher training. London.
Burghes, D. (2012). Primary Problems: A First Curriculum for Mathematics. London.
Clark-Wilson, A., Oldknow, A., & Sutherland, R. (2011). Digital technologies and mathematics education: A report from a working group of the Joint Mathematical Council of the United Kingdom. London.
Finegold, P. (2011). Good Timing. London.
Hodgen, J., & Marks, R. (2013). The Employment Equation: Why our young people need more maths for today’s jobs. London.
Norris, E. (2012). Solving the maths problem: international perspectives on mathematics education.London.
Ofsted. (2011). Good practice in primary mathematics. Manchester: Ofsted.
Ofsted. (2012). Mathematics : made to measure (pp. 3–18). Manchester.
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. (2013). STEM education for 14-19 year olds (pp. 1–4). London.
Porkess, R. (2012). The Future of Statistics in Schools and Colleges. London.
Royal Society. (2011). Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education. London.
Select Committee on Science and Technology. (2012). Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ( STEM ) subjects. London.
Vorderman, C., Porkess, R., Budd, C., Dunne, R., & Rahman-hart, P. (2011). A world-class mathematics education for all our young people. London.
Whitehouse, G., & Burdett, N. (2013). NfER Thinks: Why mathematics education needs whole‑system, not piecemeal, reform. Slough.