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Pythagoras Alone Won't Help Our Children Build a Successful Career

14/11/2014 17:18 GMT | Updated 14/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Hardly a month goes by without a report telling us how bad UK children are at maths. Year after year we're told we're not trying hard enough; not applying ourselves; we're falling behind in the league tables and we really must do better. Meanwhile, the media rush around trying to find someone or something to blame: our poor old teachers; the curriculum; the government; our school system; the British culture. No one is safe from this blame-game.

But why don't we just stop and think for a moment. Our Pavlovian response to maths is that it is special - untouchable; it's the most important subject on the curriculum. And though we have taken vital steps towards helping put maths in a life-skills context, in my view, we are still cramming it into our children's heads in broadly the same way we did 30 years ago. But what if, in the 21st century, learning maths in the traditional way is actually counter-productive? Is the way we teach maths actually hampering our children rather than helping them? Could it be that because our world has changed so much so fast, straight maths is becoming largely irrelevant?

I can hear people shouting as they read! Yes, maths is important, of course it is! We didn't all suffer hundreds of hours of double maths for nothing. We need to be numerate and understand basic maths. If our children can't count, understand shapes, time, speed, weights, decimals and basic probability, fractions and percentages, their lives will be infinitely more difficult. But I challenge anyone, except perhaps a carpenter or an architect, to tell me that Pythagoras' theorem has enriched their lives, clinched that job or brought them untold wealth. I challenge anyone who is not a professional mathematician to argue the case that for the vast majority of people, the daily use of quadratic equations is the key to a successful life.

The minister for skills and enterprise, Matthew Hancock MP, certainly recognises the importance of maths in the curriculum. In February he said: "Maths is an essential foundation for any career. Taught well it opens up a range of possible jobs and makes a real difference to progression to the highest levels. Attracting the brightest and best graduates to teach in maths in further education will help ensure learners get the educational grounding they need. This is an important step in creating a skilled workforce that meets the needs of employers and can better compete in the global race."

However, while accepting the importance of maths, some of our Young Enterprise alumni may disagree with Mr Hancock. Here's Daniel White, who took part in a Young Enterprise Company Programme, setting up his own business while in the sixth form in 2011: "People skills, teamwork, sales and negotiation skills, delegation, marketing, market research, invoices, cheques, and corporation tax are all words that probably don't mean much to the average sixteen-year-old. But, ask them about the Pythagorean theorem and they'd know all about it. Should we really be placing more emphasis on finding 'x', than finding a job? Not to negate from the importance of maths, but I am trying to emphasise that some of the most important lessons I learned were not taught by a teacher, but by my experiences in the Young Enterprise Company programme."

I understand and accept both these points of view. But I believe we need to have a discussion about whether stuffing traditional maths down our children day after day is actually delivering real results, for them and society. While maths is vital, does it, in reality, need to be taught in a radically different way?

Professor Dave Pratt, professor of mathematics education and faculty director of research at London University's Institute of Education thinks that we need to turn maths teaching on its head. He said: "Maths is usually taught the opposite way round to other subjects. For instance, with a language you learn it by speaking it, but with maths you learn about it first and then use it later." In Professor Pratt's view, "the problem with maths is that it is taught in a way that is disconnected from the children. They don't see how it is relevant to their lives. It is presented only through abstract concepts, rather than in terms of experiences. Seeing how you can use maths to answer problems and get stuff done is the key. Many students never understand why they are learning algebra, for example, but this approach makes it much more meaningful."

Something is definitely wrong as our placing in the OECD 2013 report states: "Out of 24 nations, young adults in England (aged 16-24) rank 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy. England is behind Estonia, Australia, Poland and Slovakia in both areas".

Perhaps if we focus more on the practical application of maths during lessons, using enterprise, business and real-world scenarios as a starting point, then children would become inspired by maths. Professor Pratt gives a good example: "Say you are a secondary maths student trying to decide on the best route for a village bypass. Would you pick the cheapest route? What about the hospital that would have to be knocked down? After all, there's more that needs to be considered than just cash sums." I would add to this scenario: what if children could set up a fictional construction company to build a new hospital on a different site? Learn how to design the building, calculate the cost of materials, logistics, supply chains and man-hours required; work out how many doctors and nurses they would need for the estimated population and calculate their wages. What if they could understand how to secure funding for the project, identify risks and calculate net and gross profit?

According to figures we've collated at Young Enterprise, 70% of UK employers say it is difficult to find good quality applicants for entry-level jobs; 43% of UK employers say the education system is not equipping young people with the right skills for them to enter the workforce and 92 per cent of employers say it is important to offer enterprise education as part of the national curriculum in schools yet it is no longer statutory - neither is Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education. In my view, if we're going to help our young people get excited about maths, get a job and build a successful career we can't just rely on Pythagoras.