Speech

Elizabeth Truss speaks about maths teaching

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

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss speaks at the launch of the APPG for Maths and Numeracy about the importance of good maths teaching.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP

Today is World Maths Day.

I am delighted that the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Maths and Numeracy is being established. There is a growing political consensus around the importance of maths education with both Conservatives and Labour wanting all students to continue with maths until 18.

I think Barry [Sheerman MP], who is a determined advocate for maths and numeracy, and Caroline [Dinenage MP], who does sterling work as government champion for small business, deserve real applause for setting up the APPG. It’s long overdue and I look forward to seeing its output.

I also congratulate Mike Ellicock and National Numeracy on their challenge launch.

Building up confidence in maths, getting across the importance of maths, working with people to drive up numeracy - that work is essential.

And in particular, the emphasis on the fact that maths is for everyone. That it’s not for specialists and experts - but no matter what you’re doing, it’s something you can benefit from - and need to master.

I am also grateful for ICAEW’s involvement. The support of business and industry is vital in achieving our objectives.

Working together I think we can achieve a culture change.

We can move from a place where it’s considered cool to say “I’m rubbish at maths” to being a “can do maths” country.

Maths important for life chances

And it is vital we do so.

First, it changes the life chances of each child and adult.

The OECD calls numeracy “the best protection against unemployment, low wages, and poor health” - because the ability to command and manipulate numbers makes you more employable.

And as National Numeracy’s research shows, those positive effects are much stronger for numeracy than it is for literacy.

Someone who does well at maths at age 10 will earn more well into their 30s: and if they go on to A level, the effect only grows stronger.

But we know many are currently losing out - girls and students from low income backgrounds in particular.

We know that by age of 10 in England, boys are already more comfortable with maths than girls. By 14, girls have actually lost confidence, and the gap with boys has grown.

And confidence affects results. If you look at PISA 2012, our boys outperformed our girls in both maths and science - and the gap was larger than the OECD average.

There are indications that this contributes to the gender pay gap. The OECD skills survey found that women were less likely to use problem-solving skills in their jobs, with “about half of the cross-country differences in the gender gap in wages predicted by differences in the use of problem-solving skills at work”.

Children from low income backgrounds also lag behind.

At GCSE maths, about half of pupils eligible for free school meals got at least a C - compared to 75% of the rest - an attainment gap of 25 percentage points.

None of this is inevitable. In Hong Kong, just under 9% of all pupils achieved the lowest levels in the PISA maths assessment. In Singapore, it’s just above 8%. In Shanghai, it’s under 4%. In England, it’s 22% - almost a quarter. And these countries have very small gaps between girls and boys, too.

This is not just about career and employment. It’s also about the confidence to manage your own life and finances. From mortgages to bills to taxes to pensions. It’s much harder if you’re not confident with numbers. Maths is empowering.

Maths is important for the future of our country

Improving our maths performance is also about the future potential of our country.

We know that maths has the highest earning premium of any subject. And it has a higher earnings premium in England than other countries; clearly indicating huge demand.

There aren’t a fixed number of jobs. If we educate our population to a better level in maths - businesses will want to locate in our country and new firms will be established. We know is the correlation between maths scores and economic growth is increasing. It’s becoming more important.

And you can see why. From fashion to farming, the subject is vital. The app, Snap Fashion, selling clothes online - using maths. Or the algorithms in finance, coding in marketing, the use of data in TV or technology - all using maths.

So if we are ambitious for each individual - and ambitious for our country - we have to be ambitious about maths teaching.

But also - about access to culture in widest sense

But there’s more to maths than these practical reasons. For centuries, education was defined by the ‘liberal arts’ - the essential things you had to know, to count as an educated person.

That included grammar, rhetoric, music - but also geometry and arithmetic.

That’s still the case today. That being educated - in its widest sense - means confidence with numbers. And we have a good record.

Look at the maths discoveries that came from Britain. Calculus. Logarithms. Standard deviation. The popular use of the decimal point.

Or the British inventions using maths: railways, tyres, submarines, computers, the jet engine, ultrasound - even curling uses maths.

You can’t understand our history without people like Sir Isaac Newton or Ada Lovelace.

You simply can’t understand Britain’s place in the world without maths.

That’s why we’re improving maths teaching

That’s why we’re doing everything we can to improve our performance in maths.

At primary, the new curriculum places much more emphasis on core arithmetic - giving competence and confidence at a young age.

At secondary, new GCSEs will be more challenging, ambitious and rigorous - giving greater emphasis to the application of maths. We expect that schools will increase the time they spend teaching maths - and we’re introducing new core maths qualifications - so that everyone will keep studying maths up to age 18, to the highest level they can achieve.

And I’m delighted today to announce a new maths programme with China. We have some brilliant maths teachers in this country, but as in any area - we can spread best practice and learn from others.

So we’re creating new maths hubs - 30 regional centres that help schools improve maths teaching. Up to 60 maths teachers from China will come to the hubs, starting this autumn term. So that our teachers can learn from their techniques - teaching to the top, helping struggling pupils one-on-one, daily maths lessons, homework and feedback.

And 2 leading English maths teachers from each of the 30 maths hubs will work in schools in China for at least a month, and up to a year, to learn their world-class teaching approaches.

It’s great to see Andreas Schleicher, the respected head of education at the OECD say the programme could be “transformational” - because we’re determined to learn from China’s can-do attitude to maths. I want us to match them, and their performance.

Conclusion

With changes to the curriculum, changes to qualifications and programmes like the hubs and exchange - we are giving maths the attention it deserves. Because we know that good maths and numeracy is essential for every child - and for our national future.

I think working together with the APPG and National Numeracy - I think we can change our culture to one that is very positive and confident about maths.

Thank you very much.

Published 12 March 2014