Maths to 18? Is this the way to make people data literate?

Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister, has caused some waves in the past few days with one of his personal pledges that young people should have to study maths until 18. As he said himself in his speech:

“Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive and it’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.”

Rishi Sunak, January 2023

While on the surface this may seem like a great idea, critics have been keen to pull apart all the ways that compulsory maths education is either a bad thing (from Simon Pegg’s passionate rant about lack of focus on the arts, many people saying how much they hated maths at school) or simply won’t work (lack of qualified teachers or investment in schools, or even children going to school hungry). All of these criticisms have merit and I’m a big believer in ideas being criticised and pulled apart to get to something that works rather than biased idealism.

While I have a personal love for mathematics and 16 year old me would have skipped happily into extra maths lessons without thought, there are plenty of children who did not enjoy the experience. I believe this is because the way in which maths is taught doesn’t have daily relevance for most.

My own opinion is that maths is essential for everyone, but we need to be specific about what type of numeracy is needed. But maths is not all that’s needed. The digital society we are in also requires skills in critical thinking and discernment and this is something I believe is more important than maths. When I gave a talk at the University of Exeter as part of their TechExeter conference in 2019 I concluded that these skills were more important than mathematics for the future. “Maths for everyone to 18” is a simple message to get across, but I believe we need a complete overhaul of how mathematics is taught. Not everyone needs trigonometry and calculus, but there is some much maths in everyday life that is built on simple concepts you don’t need to derive from first principles in these days where we all have a powerful computer in our pockets. Some if this is touched on later in his speech:

“[I]n a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before, and letting our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down.”

Rishi Sunak, January 2023

The key here is analytical skills. If you look at any data analytics course (e.g. the Coursera one) then you will see the skills you are expected to learn:

Skills you are targeted to learn in the Coursera data analytics qualification

Questioning and problem solving are just as important as statistical analysis and using databases and spreadsheets. Understanding the problems of sample size and significance are more important than being able to derive these equations, particularly if you are not going to go on to study any further. I disagree with Simon Pegg’s view that this will turn us into a country of data entering robots, data does underpin a lot of jobs but it also affects how we interact with the world. You only have to look at how much misinterpretation there was of data during COVID to see why this is important. This can be done without compromising the arts or humanities.

What are we really wanting for our children’s future? Not to be hoodwinked by financial scams or bad data, able to think critically about information presented to them and ask questions rather than just accepting numbers… none of this constitutes maths study in the traditional sense to me and could be incorporated into a broader syllabus. Does it need to be to 18? I don’t think so. A change to maths GCSE to include more statistics and more direct incorporation of analytics into other subjects would probably do the trick.

Like the Prime Minister, I am hugely passionate about education and if you read this regularly then you’ll know what a supporter I am of the Open University and life long learning. However, I don’t believe forcing students into subjects they don’t enjoy is the way forward. I know too many people who were forced to take subjects they didn’t want to, then didn’t get good grades and were left with the feeling that they were stupid or failures well into their adult lives. This is not the way. In his place I think I would have made a mandate to support data literacy throughout the population and offered support to the teaching staff to help review how this could be achieved. Although that’s not a great soundbite ;).

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.