The mathematical activity of young people (and adults)

It was suggested in the section ‘Problems’ (symptoms) that negative attitudes towards mathematics provide an indication that there is something wrong with mathematics education. However, these attitudes are also widely seen as a cause for the problems. ‘Negative attitudes’ includes a general dislike of mathematics and a cultural acceptability of ‘I can’t do maths’.

It is widely claimed that generally negative attitudes are the cause of student disengagement at school level (as discussed in the section on symptoms). For example, Vorderman et al (2011) argue that because of the ‘culturally poor attitude towards mathematics  …. it is all too easy for young people to disengage from mathematics” (p. 22).

Negative attitudes are also cited as a reason for low post-16 take-up of mathematics. As the Royal Society report (2011) states:

‘The low levels of participation in mainstream post-16 science and mathematics education … appear to result from a distinct general lack of warmth in the UK population towards science and mathematics.’ (p 55)

There is also a suggestion that mathematics (STEM subjects) is seen as somehow less attractive than ‘creative’, ‘arty’ subjects (Archer, Osborne, & DeWitt, 2012). It seems that parents and children see a divide between arts and sciences and that ‘arty’ children are encouraged to follow the ‘arty’ route rather than the science route.

On the other hand, Archer et al (2012) argue that there is not necessarily a clear-cut relationship between students’ enjoyment of mathematics and levels of participation and attainment. They cite Japan as a counter example; although Japanese students appear to have low levels of liking for the subject, they have high levels of attainment and participation.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology report ( 2013) also claims that low numbers of young people pursuing STEM subjects can not be explained by negative attitudes and goes on to state that ‘the majority of 10-14 year olds in England enjoyed and were interested in science’ (p 3). Whether this relates specifically to science or to STEM in general, which includes mathematics, is unclear. The report by Hodgen et al. appears to support this view, stating that:

‘… we found little evidence to indicate that improving attitudes and aspirations alone is likely to lead to significant increases in participation and attainment’ (Hodgen, Marks, & Pepper, 2013 p. 9)

It is reported that not being good at mathematics is generally seen as acceptable and the claim is made that this attitude is a cause for the problems in mathematics, such as, for example, low levels of post-16 participation (ACME, 2011a; Harris, 2012; National Numeracy for everyone for life, 2012; Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011). Harris sums up the claim, stating that:

It seems that the UK has a culture where being less skilled in mathematics and numeracy is perceived as acceptable and not uncommon…. Until this social attitude towards mathematics changes, it will be very difficult to create a dramatic shift in meaningful participation rates in post-16 mathematics education, as learners do not see the need to increase their mathematical skill. (p. 11)

The argument seems to be that because it is acceptable to be bad at maths, young people think that they do not need to study maths. However there is little evidence in the reports that this link exists.

A second aspect (but possibly related) to negative attitudes is that mathematics is seen as difficult (ACME, 2011a; Harris, 2012; Hodgen et al., 2013) and boring (AlphaPlus Constulancy, 2012; Harris, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011). As a result, it is claimed, students do not opt to take the subject at post-16 levels. For example, it seems that STEM A-levels are seen as hard ((Harris, 2012; Royal Society, 2011; Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011) and for some learners a reason to drop mathematics is that they are seeking the highest grades at A-level for university entrance and they are more likely to achieve these in other subject areas.

There is, however, some evidence that young people appreciate the value of mathematics (ACME, 2011a; NFER, 2013) and it seems that gaining a qualification in mathematics is of key importance.

‘The consensus was that for many students it was not a love of mathematics that promoted engagement and commitment but the extrinsic value of gaining the required grade at GCSE’ (AlphaPlus Constulancy, 2012, p. 10).

On the other hand, some reports claim that students are unaware of the value of the mathematics and science qualifications for the job market (Archer et al., 2012; British Academy, 2012; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013) or for undergraduate study in STEM subject areas (Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2012) as well as a range of other subjects (e.g. British Academy, 2012). Harris (2012) reports that some young people see mathematics as irrelevant to them.

Overall it seems likely that young people are confused about the value and importance of mathematics. As ACME (2011a) reports, young people receive ‘[m]ixed messages … about the importance of mathematics for an educated person. (p 23)

Low post-16 participation in mathematics can be seen a symptom of the nation’s mathematical problems (discussed elsewhere). However, low post-16 participation is also sometimes seen as a cause. The argument is that it is a cause because the many young people who do not choose to study mathematics after GCSE arrive at the workplace or university after a gap during which they may have had no mathematical education and lack the skills, memory of what they knew and confidence to apply essential mathematical techniques (ACME, 2011b; British Academy, 2012; Vorderman et al., 2011).

While it is recognised that there has been a recent increase in student numbers in A-level mathematics, it seems that too many young people enter undergraduate courses requiring mathematical skills and understanding. ACME states:

Even with the welcome rise in the number of those taking A-level mathematics, it is still the case that nearly 40 per cent of chemistry students, over 50 per cent of architecture students and over 60 per cent of computer science students have not studied A-level mathematics. (2011b, p. 15)

A number of reports give a lack of good career guidance, available advice and clear information as the reason students do not value mathematics and do not continue to study it post-16 (Archer et al., 2012; Finegold, 2011; Royal Society, 2011; Science Learning Centre, 2013; Vorderman et al., 2011)

‘It is vital that learners who wish to progress in the STEM sector have appropriate advice and guidance so that they follow study programmes that enable them to reach the mathematical competence required.’ (Harris, 2012, p. 23)

It seems that the quality of the advice provided to young people may be compromised by a lack of scientific background amongst career advisors: ‘Worryingly, 90% of careers advisers have no scientific background’ (Royal Society, 2011, p. 8).

This appears to be a particular problem for young people wishing to study at HE level. It seems that many students are unaware of the need for prior mathematical qualifications (A-level) if they wish to study certain science courses (ACME, 2011b; Royal Society, 2011) and that the universities themselves do not make their own requirements clear for science subjects and more generally (ACME, 2011b).

While it seems to be agreed that this lack of information and guidance for young people is a cause of some of the mathematics problems, there is some evidence to the contrary. Hodgen et al (2013) suggest that there is little evidence that the information and guidance students have available makes a difference:

‘We also found limited evidence on the nature and efficacy of the information and guidance available to students.’ (p. 9)


ACME. (2011a). Mathematical Needs of Learners. London
ACME. (2011b). Mathematical Needs Mathematics in the workplace and in Higher Education. London
AlphaPlus Constulancy, 1. (2012). The independent evaluation of the pilot of the linked pair of GCSEs in mathematics (MLP): Second Interim Report. 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
Finegold, P. (2011). Good Timing. London
Harris, J. (2012). Rational Numbers. London.
Hodgen, J., Marks, R., & Pepper, D. (2013). Towards universal participation in post-16 mathematics : lessons from high-performing countries. London.
National Numeracy for everyone for life. (2012). The National Numeracy Challenge. Lewes.
NFER. (2013). NFER Thinks: Improving young people’s engagement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Slough.
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. (2013). STEM education for 14-19 year olds. London.
Royal Society. (2011). Preparing for the transfer from school and college science and mathematics education to UK STEM higher education. London.
Science Learning Centre. (2013). The future of STEM education. York.
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.

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