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The next government must shift our anti-maths culture

The Prime Minister’s ambition to reform post-16 education and ensure all pupils study mathematics until 18 has generated a lot of feedback, among which the most constructive is that the policy will require many more qualified mathematics teachers. Meanwhile, Labour have pledged to focus instead on a ‘phonics for maths’ programme aimed at younger pupils.

Both policies should be welcomed, not only because both aim to see more pupils ultimately achieve better maths outcomes but because both parties have recognised a bigger problem: a culture of negative disposition towards the subject that is holding back whole groups of learners.

Across all GCSEs taken by 16-year-olds in 2023, the pass rate 67.8 per cent at grades 4 to 9. In maths, it’s 72 per cent. Mathematics is therefore arguably in a good place. However, only 16.4 per cent of those who retook their GCSE maths in post-16 education achieved grade 4 or higher (a 4.8 per cent decline from the previous year). Two critical questions arise: how can the policy deliver for all those the resit policy is not reaching, and why are so few of those who are successful choosing to study mathematics after their GCSEs?

The answer to both questions lie in challenging negative attitudes towards mathematics and their pernicious effect on pupils’ achievement. Rightly, this issue is taking centre stage in the election and will hopefully affect decision making and practices in schools afterwards, whoever wins.

More mathematics is a good thing! Sadly, too many of our pupils have been socialised to hate the subject, often by adults in their lives who affirm such attitudes or fail to challenge them. Over time, these negative attitudes adversely impact learning.

Worse, these attitudes are not spread evenly and often impact disadvantaged and under-represented groups the most. Research has shown that there are gender and social class differences in negative dispositions towards mathematics, affecting girls who remain vastly under-represented in STEM professions, and working-class children who are already negatively affected by economic deprivation.

Too many pupils have been socialised to hate maths

The school curriculum should therefore promote equity through the development of positive attitudes towards mathematics. This should start from early years where teachers can give greater attention to affective factors such as confidence, motivation, enjoyment and valuing of mathematics.

In 2012, across OECD countries, high-performing students whose parents do not like mathematics were on average 73 per cent more likely to feel helpless when they faced a mathematics problem than high-performing children of parents who like mathematics. This points to the importance of parents socially inscribing positive attitudes towards mathematics.

There is positive news for Sunak’s policy in the latest PISA figures: England’s pupils have risen the rankings for mathematics, making us one of the top-performing countries. Even more encouragingly, 96 per cent of pupils say they want to do well in the subject.

However, only 44 per cent report mathematics as their favourite subject at age 15. That is something schools can and should be doing something about, and it must involve improving the mathematical (and STEM-related) experiences of young people. We must be able to systematically and effectively address their queries about the value of mathematics, embed attitudes that underscore the future utility of being mathematically competent and underscore its role as an enabler for developing STEM literacy.

The Diversity and Inclusion in STEM report acknowledges the lifelong benefits of STEM-related skills. It notes that opportunities to develop these skills are not evenly distributed and calls specifically for addressing female under-representation in STEM by ensuring equitable access to STEM subjects in school. Doing so will be crucial to more students pursue mathematics to 18 (and beyond).

As well as the economic benefits of increasing the high-skill, high-pay STEM workforce, there are strong personal and social reasons to make this work. The near future is likely to be defined by unprecedented and controversial challenges – from AI to climate change – that will be best navigated by highly numerate citizens.

But these are all the reasons they should do mathematics. Now we must convince them that they can.

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