Try Again, Mr Gove

26/08/2012 20:27 | Updated 26 October 2012
  • Wendy Jones Freelance writer and former BBC education correspondent

Ever since Kenneth Baker first introduced a National Curriculum for schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1988, governments have periodically had a bash at improving it. It's one of those cyclical things. The business of defining what children should study at different ages remains - perhaps regretfully - as deeply political as ever.

The current government is at it again (although this time, post-devolution, it's just schools in England at the receiving end). But this is a major overhaul, aimed at defining "the essential knowledge that all children should acquire".

In June, the Department for Education (DfE) published draft proposals for English, maths and science in primary schools. Secondary proposals are yet to come and there'll be a full public consultation later on, but at National Numeracy we felt it was important to make our views known early on about one crucial area - maths. We've told the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that his department's proposals contain serious flaws.

Let me take a step or two back here. Maths is a troubled subject within the school curriculum. Children often begin to lose interest around the half-way mark in primary school. By early secondary school, many have switched off altogether, with 40% still not getting a reasonable GCSE pass (regarded by many as the minimum requirement for employability) - and that was before even this year's dip in grades.

Most of these go on to join the ranks of the millions of functionally 'innumerate' Britons who struggle to work out change in a shop, compare interest rates, read a pay slip. They didn't 'get' maths at school found the subject difficult and/or boring and learnt to convince themselves that they couldn't do it.

The content of the curriculum is clearly only part of the problem here, but it is a significant part. What is taught links to how it is taught and the attitudes children develop as a result. And that brings me back to the government's review.

National Numeracy is pleased that the DfE is paying close attention to the maths curriculum: improvements are needed. We also like some of the top line statements about mathematical reasoning and problem-solving. But these are not followed through in the details of the proposed teaching programmes.

Children need to become very secure in their understanding of the basic concepts of maths during the primary school years and, in order to ensure this, the curriculum should concentrate on the essential core. The government's draft proposals don't travel in this direction. They risk an overloaded curriculum, with little connection between the many separate 'competences' and too much early dependence on abstract rote learning. We think that an expert group should be urgently formed to oversee the maths curriculum across the age range - even if that delays the curriculum review. (I realise the government has a political timetable to adhere to, so this idea may not be very well received. But it is offered in good faith and is worth considering.)

And before you ask, yes, children should learn their tables. I had them drummed into me at primary school a long time ago and very useful they've proved too. But this should not be at the expense of understanding the mathematical concepts behind them. Having automatic recall of 9 x 7 makes life easier, but if it doesn't also help you calculate 18 x 7, then a vital sense of mathematical pattern has been missed. Similarly, to work out the cost of seven apples at 30p, you've got to have a sense of number place value. To know that buying three items with a 30% discount does not give you 90% off in total means understanding the concept of per cent.

So where does this leave us? We know a large part of the mathematical community shares our views and has told the Education Secretary pretty much the same. We believe too the government would very much like to get it right. But we know that there are political prejudices at play here (ministers are greatly drawn by the notion of 'rigour' and terrified by any accusation of dumbing down). This government now has a significant opportunity to do something effective. Try again, Mr Gove.