THE BLOG

No maths in business?

09/05/2013 11:48 BST | Updated 08/07/2013 10:12 BST

I half-watched The Apprentice last night while going through the email backlog - both experiences made slightly more bearable by the other. But my attention was suddenly caught by a Maths Problem.

The teams had to invent and sell a new flavour of beer. (Flavour of beer? I thought beer was beer-flavoured, but what do I know? I don't really like the stuff.) Anyway the Problem seemed to involve working out the quantity of a particular ingredient - possibly essence of rhubarb? - needed in the brew.

As I say, I wasn't watching that closely. But it turned out to be a task which baffled Lord Sugar's would-be business partners. They couldn't work out the ratios and - now I was beginning to concentrate - at one point they seemed to confuse one per cent and one hundred per cent. They didn't seem to have a clue.

As a result, £123 of undrinkable beer went down the drain and the mathematically challenged team went on to lose the heat. After failing - on the second attempt - to get it right, one team member defended herself: "Well I'm not a mathematician."

Oh dear, oh dear. I'm not sure which was worst - failing (twice) to apply what appeared to be a simple ratio, assuming that you needed very special skills to do that, or bragging about not possessing those skills. On consideration, it was probably the last of those. As Lord S's henchwoman, the cool and realistic Karren Brady, pointed out: "It's not rocket science."

That it isn't. But it was a nice little example of something all too familiar - the view that maths is something best left to mathematicians, a rarefied branch of knowledge that ordinary people, and even those extraordinary people who choose to go on to reality TV shows, don't need to bother with.

The rather trite truth of course is that there ain't much in life that doesn't have some maths in it - everyday things have everyday maths in them. And the idea that you could contemplate going into business - of all career choices - without having the basic numeracy, the simple mathematical reasoning, to be able to apply straightforward ratios is, well, rather peculiar.

We're still plugging away at this idea at National Numeracy - the idea that maths, everyday maths not PhD maths, is pervasive, that it's unavoidable, that it's a way of thinking, a form of logic that you can't do without. And moreover, that it's something that you can do. Saying "I'm rubbish at maths" or - loaded with even more meaning - "I'm not a mathematician" is inexcusable.

We think we're making progress. There does seem to be a growing recognition that cultural rejection of maths could be causing us difficulties, that poor numeracy is a massive problem - outweighing even poor literacy - blighting the lives of millions of people and harming the economy. People, at least some people, do get it. Things are going to change.

Then along comes The Apprentice and it feels like we're back to square one. But well done, Ms Brady, for putting it into proportion.