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Why do Brits hate math? Imagine that

Why do Brits hate math? Imagine that

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This article is the latest part of the Financial Education and Inclusion from FT

do you hate math The British are perhaps more willing than most to admit this, but not so Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

This week he revealed his ambitions to make learning some form of math compulsory by the age of 18 in a bold pledge to “reinvent the way we approach numeracy”. It’s not the first time the Conservative Party has flirted with the idea, but including it in such a high-profile speech makes it Sunak’s personal crusade. Visions of “see me” in red ink come to mind.

Being nonsense at math is – oddly enough – worn as a badge of honor in Britain, even though it’s a problem that’s costing the economy dearly. Half of working-age adults in the UK have a basic knowledge of mathematics. But is compulsory mathematics the answer? I’ll be honest – my 16-year-old self would have screamed at the prospect of two more years of triangulation.

I strongly suspect that Sunak was the biggest geek in his Winchester math class, but he has yet to show his work for this policy. He’s aware it won’t mean a mandatory A-levels for everyone, so what will it entail? To force every 16-18 year old in England to continue in a subject, with more than half dropping out after GCSE, requires a total rethink of the current teaching and examination system.

Sunak articulated the desired outcome: to give school leavers practical skills to better navigate the job market and understand the world, not to mention the confidence to manage their personal finances.

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Once you market math as a valuable life skill, it’s easier to sell the benefits: I appreciate the emphasis on the practical side of math. But that ethos is not reflected in the curriculum for 14-16 year olds.

“Around a third of children fail the GCSE in maths each year and that’s the bigger problem we have to solve,” says Bobby Seagull, the maths expert and broadcaster who teaches part-time at an east London secondary school.

Under-18s who fail to achieve a Grade 4 — which roughly equates to a low “C” in old money — are forced to repeat GCSE math repeatedly. This nearly broke my youngest stepson who was completely demoralized when he eventually died (we had a ceremonial burning of all previous papers in the back garden).

Although he got the foundation work with a 5 as the highest possible grade, he really struggled with algebra and geometry. “If you force kids to learn this at the expense of more hands-on arithmetic, we get a nation that ends up hating the subject,” says Seagull. “Unless you continue studying math at A-level, you probably won’t use this information again.”

He prefers a more hands-on approach to self-improvement, such as National numeracy challengethat encourages people of all ages to improve their numerical skills through real-life examples.

Math purists may balk at this, but Lucy Kellaway, my former FT colleague and co-founder of teach now, has noted the “incredibly detrimental” effect that mandatory GCSE reviews have on students. “You feel more and more like a failure,” she says. “As a result, they not only hate math, but also school. If we don’t really think deeply about what mathematics looks like and what we want to achieve, I can’t imagine this policy being successful.”

Like me, Lucy is a trustee of flicthe FT’s financial education charity, which works to ensure that basic finance skills are taught in math classes.

I passed the math GCSE for the first time when I was 16, but I laughed when my math teacher suggested I do a math high school diploma. Please Miss, no more Pythagoras!

if core math, the relatively new practice-oriented maths Abitur, which already existed at the time, might have appealed to me. This could be a big part of the maths landscape after 16 years, but very few schools have the resources to teach it – the national shortage of maths teachers is a statistic the PM needs to study very carefully.

As the main provider of math homework help, parents are also an important part of any solution – but the UK is being held back by poor adult numeracy. This makes hatred of math a hereditary disease.

To solve this, we need to think about how we encourage numeracy skills in over 18s as well. The Prime Minister would do well to look at the link between poor numeracy skills and low-income households who cannot afford the luxury of paying for extra, private math tuition.

As Chancellor he backed the excellent Multiply initiative, which aims to tackle adult numbers, but £560m over three years will not solve such a deep-rooted problem. Teaching the nation to love math is a noble ambition, but getting it right takes a lot more zeros than that.

Claer Barrett is Consumer Editor of the FT and author of “What they don’t teach you about money‘. claer.barrett@ft.com

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