And the Oscar goes to……Mathematics!

Friday 30 January 2015

Principal's blog by Ian Pryce

It is interesting to see two of the strongest contenders for the Best Male Actor Oscar this year are Brits playing brilliant mathematicians!

The love story of Stephen Hawking and the spy story of Alan Turing make great cinema, as does the story of men having to cope with profound disability or homosexuality at a time when it was illegal.  As a Maths undergraduate at Manchester University the brilliance of former lecturer Turing was often discussed and he has always been one of my heroes.  Similarly there is much to be admired in the way Hawking seems to have both enjoyed and controlled his celebrity status.

But if Mathematicians are the latest celluloid pin-ups so too is their subject.  Mathematics is becoming popular again.

There is overwhelming evidence that Maths is good for you. Studies have shown that those with A Level Maths tend to earn a significant premium compared to those that don’t, regardless of profession.  So lawyers with A Level Maths tend to earn more than lawyers without; teachers with that qualification earn more than those without; and it is similar for actors.

Our politicians look East and see the booming Asian economies full of young people with far more advanced Maths skills than our own children, and rightly look to see what we can learn from their approach.

Part of the issue appears to be cultural.  It has long been acceptable here to own up to, even be a bit proud of, an inability to do Maths.  Yet you would never similarly admit to being hopeless at reading for example.  Governments have steadily come to recognise that allowing the majority of young people to stop doing Maths after the age of 16, even if you did not achieve the accepted standard badge of numeracy (grade C or better at GCSE), was educationally flawed.  Young people have been, at first, encouraged to continue studying Maths; then it became part of many qualifications like apprenticeships, and from next year all students who achieve a grade D at GCSE will be required to re-do the GCSE itself.

While there is legitimate debate to be had about the merits of particular qualifications, particularly given the evidence that re-sitting something you failed has a low likelihood of success, the case for Maths education is clear.  For me a solid set of Maths skills is empowering for the individual.  It allows you to navigate life more confidently and opens up new ways of looking at almost everything.  It also stops you being exploited by the unscrupulous – if you can’t budget, or check your change, or estimate, you will always be at the mercy of someone else.

The case may be made but the practicalities are huge.  For Bedford College it means we will be teaching Maths to about 2,000 16 and 17 year olds each year, about seven times the number of Engineers we train and ten times the number of Hairdressers.  Our local upper schools teach GCSE Maths to about 200-300 pupils, so College becomes by far the biggest provider of Maths education.  We need many more Maths teachers (and good ones who can rectify previous underperformance), people whose skills are in high demand within and outside the education sector. 

It is our biggest challenge but one we readily accept.  The raising of the participation age to 18 this year gives us more time to support our students, but we also need the wider community to make Maths skills the fashionable thing to pursue.  Brilliant performances by hot-ticket, attractive stars Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch are hopefully just the beginning of that process!      


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