The Role of the Press in the Mathematics and Numeracy Debate

How can the press be more constructive in the way they present critical issues in education and training particularly, for our purpose, those associated with mathematics and numeracy? A good example of how most of the press communicate important topics is the annual frenzy around GCE ‘A’ and GCSE results. They go over the top with issues about grade inflation, the excellence of public schools over the state system, social deprivation and watered down syllabuses etc. This is so damaging, making many of the students feel guilty and that their efforts have not being recognised. Clearly there are major issues associated with the current examination system including the fact that a number of examining bodies see themselves as hardnosed businesses rather than part of the more public spirited education and pedagogic process, but that is for another time.

The publication of the OECD 2009 (PISA) report and the subsequent coverage in the press again highlights many of the concerns I have about this important topic. The figures should not come as any real surprise to informed individuals who have followed the decline in education and training standards in Britain over the past few decades. PISA shows that in 2009 Britain was ranked 16th in science, 25th in reading, 28th for mathematics compared with the respective figures in 2000 of 4th, 7th, and 8th. Immediately the press picked up the political elements with each respective party putting its own spin on the figures. The pendulum politics kicked in with the usual vacuous statements from Labour that the extra £30 billion spend during their period in government had brought improvements but there was ‘still some room for improvement’! The coalition government just made political capital out of the figures, stating their future plans to privatise schools, give parents and organisations an opportunity to open schools and create more academies – many of which are highly questionable. Surely education is too important to be a political football? The problems faced by this country are very serious as we are now in absolute decline after many years of relative decline when compared with other countries. Politics and politicians have a lot to answer for! What is needed is a cross party consensus on education and training policy.

Enough of politics, so how should the press handle the issues of poor achievement in mathematics and numeracy? Firstly they should accept that there is a real problem and it has been around for a long time and then systematically and carefully begin to highlight and explore ways that inform the public. Less eye grabbing tabloid headlines but a long term serious and reasoned debate about the important issues associated with these subjects and not just at the time of the publication of the results or the PISA reports.

The press made much of the countries which had performed better than us and particularly those that had overtaken us over the past decade. This as a factual statement was useful but what then needed to be asked was why. A number mentioned that many of the countries had a hard work ethic/culture whilst others emphasised that many used very traditional methods of rote learning, again interesting but what is now needed is an informed debate about the relative merits of the whole range of learning and teaching techniques not making ill judged or misinformed statements. There seems to be a tradition in this country to rubbish rote/ repetitious learning recalling the bad old days. If the teaching is inspired and motivating there is still a role for rote learning. After all many experts agree that to create numerical and mathematical capability in people the earlier you start the better by laying the foundation of number and number manipulation. What was wrong earlier was the use of rigid and mechanical ways of teaching which in many cases established good recall facility but no real understanding. Also the approach failed to build on the foundations laid and transfer that knowledge to new and more complex contexts and concepts. The foundations of learning are critical in all subjects and to coin an expression ‘foundations are invisible they are, as a result, as soon forgotten’. Many researchers and commentators on mathematics have stressed the importance of the ability to understand and handle numbers early on and stressed the essential need to link recall with understanding. Good teaching tackles the why and not just the how i.e. links the recall with the understanding and transferability skills. Good developed memory skills still have a place but not in isolation. With this background rationale, the PISA findings and others can be used by the press to convey how other countries manage their education systems particularly at the early stages and then discuss how these approaches may help this country tackle the problem. The press and indeed the media could play a very important part in this critically important issue.

A number of writers have suggested TV has a role to play in raising the profile of mathematics by broadcasting more programmes specifically on mathematics or making greater use in quiz shows. Worthy as these ideas are I feel in addition the image and profile of the subject and individuals involved in the subject could be raised by introducing the subject more in programmes e.g. soap operas. This is not such a trite suggestion just look at the interest and a massive increase in recruitment of students wanting to study forensic science after the Cracker series on TV. The result was that the number of graduates produced by the HE sector greatly exceeded the number of forensic scientists.

Summary
So how can the press be more constructive in the debates about mathematics?

  • Attempt to present the issues in a more reasonable and less sensational fashion to inform the public of the serious state of the subject in the country and present the facts as they are without embroidering them for political purposes
  • Take the politics out of the issue it is too serious for political dogma and prejudice and stop cherry pick the figures to make political points; that’s bad mathematics anyway
  • Project in a positive way the essential nature of the subject in life and employment
  • Influence public opinion to develop a positive view of the subject and convey it is an important subject and not difficult if taught be inspiring teachers
  • Introduce mathematics and numeracy problem solving and puzzling into social networking on the internet

Clearly similar statements can be made about the whole issue of the state of education and training in this country.

First published in The Numeracy Briefing. June 2011.

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  • Charles Leigh

    The observations in this article about the relationship between the press and the education system in the United Kingdom are well said and intentioned. However, to expect the leopard that is the press to change its spots and back away from ‘sensationalism’ is perhaps stretching hope a little too far.

    One would have to acknowledge that the general level of numeracy and literacy in all levels of society on this country is seriously lacking but, whilst one has to agree that the making of political capital from the annual round of GCSE and A level results is to be deplored – it does at least bring the issue back into focus. Whether syllabuses have been dumbed down will tend to be a subjective argument but what is clear is the the pedagogies predominent in primary and secondary education in the UK since the mid-sixties are not working.  A range of ‘politically-correct’ choice options for both learners and teachers alike have moved educational achievement onto the lowest common denominator. Whereas the politicians should actually have determined that the expenditure of public funds on education requires the benficiaries to master those skills that will contribute to the growth of UK plc and not the queue for handouts.

    It is a sad reflection but the vast majority of people, of whatever age group, still focus their attention and personal effort on to the extremely short term objective. School students (and their teachers) are only concerned with gaining some GCSE results – no matter what the subject as long as it does not require much effort and get in the way of Facebook, Twitter, Holyoaks, Strictly or Big Brother etc etc. Very, very few have a personal plan which guides their choice and, even those who when asked by the visiting dignatory "what job role they see themselves in when they leave school" would link their asprirational "I want to be a scientist / vet / engineer etc" with the need to do something other than media studies or sport for their GCSE.

    Can we reverse the trend? I would argue – yes provided the politicians demonstrate the will to make some very hard and in today’s climate, politically incorrect, decisions.  One simple move make it impossible to leave school without having attained a specified level of competence in communication skills – verbal and written and without a similarly specified level of numeracy skill.  Perhaps also, those vocational qualifications in engineering and allied subjects, which do NOT have the application of science and mathematics as core mandatory units should not be attracting public funding in either FE or HE.