Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Is the Population Really Woefully Bad at Maths?

Magazine article Mathematics Teaching

Is the Population Really Woefully Bad at Maths?

Article excerpt

Steve Chinn seeks to resolve the question using his vast experience together with a data based approach.

This article is based primarily around data from 1 783 students aged from 7 years to 15 years from over fifty schools across England, Wales, Isle of Man, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from 766 'adults' aged from 16 to 59 years old, collected to standardise a fifteen-minute mathematics test.


The 2010 Sheffield Report's analysis of evidence on levels of achievement in mathematics showed that some 22 per cent of 1 6 to 1 9 year-olds in England are tinctionally innumerate, a problem that has been in existence for at least twenty years. In the 2011 (Porkess et al) report for the Conservative Party entitled ? world-class mathematics education for all our young people' it states that, 'much greater attention needs to be paid to those students (nearly half of each cohort) who currently are deemed to 'fail' mathematics at age 16'. In 2006, the CBI also commented on this issue concerning adults using as a benchmark the 'maths that would be demanded of an eleven year old'. The CBI claimed that 'almost 50% of the working population of the UK fail to reach this standard.'

These three examples provide three different descriptions of under-performance: 'functionally innumerate', 'failing to achieve Grade C in GCSE', and 'not possessing a grasp of numeracy that would demanded of an eleven year old'. The last description points towards the objectives listed by the National Numeracy Strategy back in 1999, when it was set up, to address the problems perceived to exist in mathematics education in Primary schools. The NNS gave key objectives for the mathematics that children should know at 11 -years old. These included:

At age 9 years

* Know by heart all multiplication facts to 10 x 10

* Multiply and divide any positive integer up to 10 000 by 10, or 100, and understand the effect.

* Calculate mentally a difference, such as 8006-2993

* Carry out column addition and subtraction of positive integers less than 10 000

* Carry out long multiplication of a two-digit by a two-digit integer

* Carry out short multiplication and division of a three-digit by a single-digit integer

At age 10 years

* Reduce a fraction to its simplest form by cancelling common factors (Y5 Relate fractions to division and their decimal representation)

* Understand percentage as the number of parts in every 1 00 and find simple percentages of wholenumber quantities.

* Carry out long multiplication of a three-digit integer by a two-digit integer

And at age 11 years

* Use letters or symbols to represent unknown numbers or variables

* Know that algebraic operations follow the same conventions and order as arithmetic operations

* Convert from one metric unit to another

* Refine written methods of multiplication and division of whole numbers to ensure efficiency, and extend to decimals with two places.

I intend to return to these Key Objectives using data from the standardisation process to place the achievement levels of 1 0-year old, 1 3-year old, and 1 5-year old pupils together with 16-1 9 year old students into a perspective.

Teaching mathematics to all students

The 2011 Conservative Party report clearly asserts the need to look at all learners:

'It is essential for us to consider all young people and much greater attention needs to be paid to those students (nearly half of each cohort) who currently are deemed to 'fail' mathematics at age 16. We believe that it is largely the system, which fails those students. We must recognise that their requirements are different from those of the top 15% who currently go on to study mathematics to a more advanced level.'

However, in their graphic presentation of 'The Mathematics Education Circle' there is no mention of how children learn, or fail to learn, mathematics.

There is now considerable evidence on how students learn mathematics, for example from the USA's National Research Council, from Hattie's meta-analysis on what works in education, from a Russian psychologist (Krutetskii in 1976) on what students need to be successful in mathematics, on the individual differences in children from Dowker's (2005) work, on how children can be taught from Boaler's (2009) best-selling book entitled 'The Elephant in the Classroom', and on how dyslexic students can be taught from my own work based on thirty-years of experience of working with dyslexic students (Chinn 2012a, 2012b). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.