Elizabeth Truss calls for a renaissance in maths

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Education Minister calls for a renaissance in maths to help meet the demand of UK employers, and announces the removal of calculators from key stage 2 tests.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

Thank you for those kind words Derek and let me also thank the National Education Trust for inviting me along today. It is a pleasure to be in Norfolk for this very important conference.

It’s no exaggeration to say this is a make or break period in the history of maths in this country.

All around us, the influence of mathematics is shaping our lives in previously unimaginable ways. From our experience of online shopping to the financial performance of investments and pensions, we live in a world entirely framed by maths.

Even in those professions not traditionally associated with mathematics, there’s now a heavy reliance on algorithms and calculations: in journalism to spot the patterns in data; in architecture to use algebra and calculus with confidence; in marketing to make sense of the enormous array of statistics the world creates every day.

That modern orientation towards deduction and logic, that appetite for maths, the appreciation of statistical analysis, technology and probability, opens up tremendous opportunities for young people in this country. But to take full advantage, we need to start exploiting mathematics as urgently as other countries might drill for oil.

In technology, the media, e-commerce, design, engineering, medicine, the environment and beyond, the openings are almost limitless for those young people who are confident with numbers and able to read across into other technologies and industries. Only last week, 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio rose to prominence after creating an app that uses algorithms to summarise news headlines.

Success stories like Nick’s highlight the incredible opportunities that maths and formal logic can open up, and it’s why this government is so determined to restore the subject to its proper place in the curriculum.

The issue we face is one of a growing mismatch between the demand for mathematical skills in this country, and our ability to supply that demand.

For their part, maths teachers have worked - and continue to work - exceptionally hard to inspire more young people in the subject, but they operate within a desperately limiting system that often turns children off maths.

As a result, the number of gifted young mathematicians coming through the ranks in this country still lags far behind those of other areas: reflected in the fact that we haven’t produced a single Field medallist in the last 14 years, despite producing 6 in the previous 40.

Indeed, according to the Nuffield Foundation, we now have the smallest proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds studying maths of any of the 24 countries measured: well behind nations like France, Estonia, Russia, Australia, Spain, the US, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and China.

Many of these countries - like Canada where I spent a year in school - spotted the need to promote maths years ago: spurred on by lobbying from employers who wanted stretching, engaging curriculums that promoted the core essentials.

We are now playing catch-up. The support has not been there for maths teachers in this country, nor the iron will and determination to encourage more young people to take the subject after GCSE.

So, what do we need to do to sort it out? Well, first of all, I think we need to promote maths much better to children at primary age. Because it’s at this point that pupils are most likely to develop an affinity for the subject.

Take Alan Turing as an example - albeit a very gifted one. He did not stumble across maths at university, he was obsessed by it as a child: running around the garden fascinated by the mathematical patterns he saw in nature and the recurrence of sequences in plants.

Indeed, all the evidence shows that a thorough grounding in the essentials of maths from an early age directly correlates to improved results later in life. The CfBT has reported on the success that’s been enjoyed by Hungary, Finland, Russia and Japan - all of whom place great emphasis on supporting mathematical competence at primary age.

The government’s draft programme of study for mathematics is designed to recalibrate the primary curriculum and make it much stronger. Our intention is to set out the very highest expectations of primary pupils: making sure they are fully prepared for secondary school and beyond.

So, we are improving the structure of the maths curriculum by removing level descriptors: giving teachers more freedom to focus on what to teach, rather than asking them to label pupils with a level every single week or term.

And we are focussing more heavily on the importance of exploring and understanding. Asking children to select and use appropriate written algorithms and become fluent in mental arithmetic: including requiring pupils to learn their 12 times tables by the end of year 4, instead of year 6.

For too long, children have been leaving school without the necessary confidence in maths thanks to weaknesses in the curriculum. We can’t allow it to go on.

Academics at King’s College have shown us that the number of young people with a poor grasp of basic calculation has more than doubled over the last 30 years. 15 per cent of pupils today fail to achieve the most basic standards - showing they can successfully solve problems involving doubling, trebling and halving - compared with just seven per cent in the mid-70s.

Employers are not happy with this. And we are doing children no favours if we go on pretending it is ok to leave school without the mathematical agility required in the modern world.

So, I am very pleased to announce today that we are removing the use of calculators from key stage 2 tests by 2014.

Calculators can support the teaching of mathematics very effectively - it would be wrong to claim otherwise - but they are no substitute for calculations that can be carried out by a child with a pen and paper, or in their head. Particularly in a test that is designed to check whether a child has mastered the basics.

That doesn’t mean it’s not important for students to become confident users of calculators, we’re not calling for the return of the abacus at the expense of technology, but we need to get the order right.

I’m yet to meet a young person who doesn’t know how to swipe their fingers across an iPad or operate a device like a calculator, but I have met some who struggle with mathematical agility.

To progress at secondary education, children need to have a deeper understanding of what it is they are asking a calculator to do, not just a superficial appreciation of the sequences they’re inputting.

In that sense, it is no more appropriate for a child to rely on a calculator before they understand the maths behind it, than it is for them to rely on a computer’s spell check before they learn to order letters correctly.

By getting the fundamentals right at primary, we have more opportunity to encourage pupils to study maths to a high level; to move from the concrete to the abstract; and to enjoy the subject beyond GCSE.

Before the summer, we announced that the study of mathematics should be a requirement for all young people, up to the age of 19, who have not achieved a good grade at GCSE.

We are now going even further by funding the education charity ‘Mathematics in Education and Industry’ to see how we might engage more students who get a C or above in maths at GCSE, but take it no further. One of the areas they will be looking at is whether they can help teachers support young people by focussing on problem solving rather than pure theory.

In Japan, one of the top performing nations in maths, schools place a lot of emphasis on giving children a problem to solve and then encouraging them to find solutions for themselves.

The British mathematician Timothy Gowers, one of our last field medallists, has been leading thinking in the same area over the last few years: demonstrating that if you ask young people mathematical questions that are open ended, you are likely to grip their interest.

Among the conundrums Professor Gowers suggests are questions like (and I quote):

Studies have shown that British vegetarians have, on average, higher IQs than the general population. Does this show meat is bad for your brain? What other explanations might there be? How informative is an average anyway? And how large a random sample is needed if you want to be convinced that an observation is probably more than just a random fluctuation?


You are in an airport and walking from the main departure lounge to a distant gate. On the way there are several moving walkways. There is a small stone in your shoe, which is annoying enough that you decide that you must remove it.

If you want to get to the gate as quickly as possible, and if there is no danger of your annoying other passengers, is it better to remove the stone while on a moving walkway, or while on stationary ground, or does it make no difference?

Now, the great strength of this approach, as teachers here will be able to testify, is that it encourages students to think laterally about problems and make links between different mathematical concepts.

It is also tried and tested. Euclid’s treatise on geometry was essentially deductive. While in China, archaeologists have unearthed mathematical brain teasers that date back to the 2nd century BC. Maths in our classrooms should reflect this rich legacy.

The best maths schools, like Lakenham Primary in Norwich; Paston College in North Walsham; New College in Nottingham; Comberton Village College in Cambridgshire and many hundreds of others across the country, have inspiring teachers in place who bring the subject alive.

We are already looking at how similar approaches could be reflected in curriculum assessment by marking students on their ability to analyse open-ended problems and communicate their solutions.

On top of this, we are working with organisations like the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education to look at other possibilities for new post-16 courses. And we are addressing the gap in abilities at the top end of the spectrum with the support of the Cambridge University Mathematics Programme.

As many here will know, there has been a shortage of students entering higher education with the right maths skills. Cambridge University has been one of the hardest hit by this lack of math-readiness among students. So I’m delighted they’re working with us to help develop an advanced curriculum that can give students a better grounding in key mathematical ideas like trigonometry and complex numbers.

In addition to this, it is hugely encouraging to see the work being done by heads, teachers and sponsors through the opening of schools like the Sir Isaac Newton Free School right here in Norfolk. This opens in 2013.

Rachel de Souza and David Prior have done a terrific job in making this project happen. I would like to thank them in advance for the opportunity they are giving so many young people in the region to excel in maths. In David’s words, “we need a bomb to go off in maths and science” - which I took to be a positive thing.

But of course, when that bomb does goes off, we will need the largest possible supply of excellent maths teachers in this country. And that is why we have made secondary maths a priority for recruitment into initial teacher training. Candidates with a first class degree in maths are now eligible for the very highest level of bursary: £20,000 to support them through their training.

I started by saying how we’ve struggled to keep pace with the demand for mathematics in this country. I want to finish with a word of optimism. If you look at the Asian tigers and our nearer competitors like Canada and Germany, there is a huge reluctance to be beaten in education.

They lionise maths and the teachers of maths. They use exciting textbooks and teaching materials. But if you ask anyone for examples of the very best maths teaching in the world, you will find them right here, in Norfolk, East Anglia and beyond. Schools who are promoting the fascination and depth of mathematics. It’s links to great music, art and literature.

So yes, there is a solid base to build from. We can be optimistic. But we can’t be complacent if we want to build on our tremendous mathematical legacy created by thinkers like Turing.

That is why we need to be more ambitious than any other country. I want a renaissance in maths. I want teachers to be properly appreciated and supported by a curriculum that is fit for purpose. I want them to have the freedom to inspire their pupils.

On the 100th anniversary of Turing’s birth, we are absolutely determined to make sure the ‘supreme beauty’ of maths - to quote from Bertrand Russell - is reclaimed. And to make sure this country can take advantage of the enormous opportunities that this subject is creating in the world around us.

Published 9 November 2012