Science and mathematics education: the way forward

Transcript of speech by the British High Commissioner, Sir James Bevan, KCMG at a British Council New Delhi on 9 January 2013.

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

Sir James David Bevan KCMG

Thank you Rob. Mr Aoyagi (UNESCO), Dr Sinclair (NCERT), distinguished colleagues,

I’m delighted to be with you this morning to open this important event.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister of Britain he was asked what his priorities were. He said he had three: education, education and education. And he was right. There is nothing more important for the future of our countries and our citizens than high quality education for all. And it’s worth paying for. When the teachers in the UK were campaigning several years ago for more investment in education, they had a powerful slogan: “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.

So education matters. It matters to our society and our economy. And it matters hugely to all of us on a personal level. It matters to me as the father of three children. I know from my own experience travelling around this great country that Indians will make huge sacrifices to ensure their children have the best possible education. And I know that same desire is shared by parents around the world.

And science matters. Not just because it’s how we improve our lives. Not just because there can be no progress and no prosperity without it. But also because to think scientifically is to express something profound about what it means to be human. As Albert Einstein said when he was asked what he did, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”

And mathematics matters. Not just because without mathematics there is no science. Not just because it is the only universal language. Not just because bridges and buildings, including this one, would not stand up properly without the right maths. Not just because without mathematics there would be no poetry and no music. But because mathematics too is something profoundly human, and takes us to some of the deepest truths in the universe in which we live. As the Latvian mathematician Tobias Dantzig said, “Mathematics is the supreme judge; from its decisions there is no appeal”.

So if we want to build a better world (and we do), we will not do it without educating a new generation in science and mathematics.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the UK and India, and many of the other countries represented here today, have an abundance of talented people in science and maths; that all of our countries have professionals (many here today) who teach, administer or study science and maths to world class levels and are committed to educating the next generation; that we have institutions which excel in those disciplines - of which the University of Delhi under Professor Singh, and Imperial College London under Sir Keith O’Nions are two shining examples; and that in quantitative terms more young people are studying science and maths, and going on to careers in those areas, than ever before in history.

But the bad news is that this isn’t yet good enough to equip ourselves to face the challenges of the 21st century. Too many children and young people don’t have access at all to decent education of any sort, including in science and maths. Where those subjects are taught, they are often not taught as well as they need to be. Too many students drop out of science and mathematics as soon as they can. Too many of those who continue do so not because they love the subjects and are inspired by them, but because they are forced to - by their schools, their parents or their own conscience. Too many girls opt out of science and mathematics at school or as a career, taking away half of the world’s talent from the places we need it most. And too many businesses find it impossible to recruit the staff they need with the right skills in these disciplines.

Which is why the event we are launching here today is so important. The next two days are an opportunity to identify practical answers to some of the biggest questions that face all of us in this field:

  • How do we provide education in science and maths at the quality and scale necessary to meet our future needs?
  • How do we ensure that everyone has access to that education, in particular girls and other sections of society which risk exclusion?
  • How do we motivate young people to feel that science and maths is a joy not a duty?
  • How do we help teachers to deliver of their best and continually refresh their knowledge so they are providing the most up to date teaching?

There’s a famous story in which one of Einstein’s students was taking the final year physics exam and said “Dr. Einstein, Aren’t these the same questions as last year’s physics exam?” And Einstein replied: “Yes; But this year the answers are different.”

And finally, how do we do all of this at a time when for much of the world budgets are tight and there are competing priorities for the money that is available?

Those are some pretty big questions. But if we are going to get good answers to them, then this is the forum that will deliver them. This is a gathering of some of the world’s foremost experts in this field. And by considering these issues together, we will get much further than by addressing them alone. All of us in this room are good. But none of us is as good as all of us.

So I am delighted to be able to open this session. I know your deliberations are important; I am confident that they will be fruitful; and I look forward to hearing the results. Most important of all, I and my team look forward to working with you to take your recommendations forward.

On behalf of the UK government, I wish you every success.

Published 9 January 2013