Marvellous maths

Numbers game: Getting to grips with maths can be fun as well as challenging.

Politicians are falling over themselves in their effort to extol the virtues of learning maths, and even comedians think it’s cool. So what’s all the fuss about? Let’s look at the figures.

  • Why are we talking about maths?

    It is a hot topic in political circles. At the end of last year, the government announced that teenagers in England who fail to achieve at least a C grade in English and maths will have to continue studying the subjects until they pass them. This week, the opposition announced that it supported the measures. And under a Labour government, students would have to study maths up until the age of 18 as part of a national baccalaureate – something that coalition ministers have also argued for.

  • Why the sudden enthusiasm?

    Because the figures are looking pretty bleak and many believe that change is necessary. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a quarter of adults in England have the maths skills of a 10-year-old, and England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than young adults.

  • What about other countries?

    Other countries are way ahead: By age 16, the average pupil in Shanghai is three years ahead of English pupils in maths. Their poorest pupils are a full year ahead of England’s richest, and Shanghai sits confidently at the top of the OECD’s maths tables.

  • Is maths really that important?

    Yes, and not just for getting into university to study subjects like medicine and engineering, but also in our everyday lives. From paying bills and balancing a household budget, to measuring out ingredients in a recipe or calculating a dosage of medicine, maths is all around us. Doctors, lawyers, accountants and politicians all use maths on a daily basis, as do builders, plumbers, engineers and managers. And think how many jobs will require you to understand statistics: politics and even journalism.

  • Are you about to tell me its fun as well as useful?

    It’s pure joy! And shapes the way we view the universe. The early study of astronomy was dependent on an understanding of maths, and it also allowed scientists to work out the size and weight of the Earth, our distance from the Sun, and the fact that we revolve around it. Much of modern technology would not exist without it. Algorithms used by internet search engines and online businesses use maths. They also underpin dating websites, major national security organisations, and are even playing a part in predicting how to tackle crime by tracking and predicting where and when robberies and break-ins occur.

  • What’s in it for me?

    Good mathematical and reading ability at an early age is a significant factor in determining a person’s earnings, regardless of background. Some go further. According to Clancy Blair, a professor of psychology at New York University, being able to perform mathematical calculations improves reasoning, problem-solving skills, behaviour, and the ability to self-regulate. These skills are associated with the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, which continues to develop into your early 30s. Solving maths problems improves the way your brain functions and this can even translate into an ability to form stable relationships.

  • But maths just isn’t cool.

    Wrong! Maths is mainstream like never before: the geeks shall inherit the earth. Irish comedian and broadcaster Dara O’Briain studied maths and theoretical physics at University College, Dublin. A new series of his comedy maths show, ‘School of Hard Sums’, returns to the TV screens this week. With the help of Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy, several hapless comedians and some impressive experts, O’Briain tries to solve amazing mathematical brain-teasers and real-life conundrums. They even master a ‘mind-reading’ magic trick. So go on, impress your friends.

Word Watch

Earnings
A 2013 study by the University of Edinburgh revealed a significant link between mathematical and reading ability and lifetime earnings, regardless of a person’s socio-economic background. A similar US study found that students who advanced further in maths at school were more likely to have higher wages and less likely to be unemployed.

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