Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, the Chair of the Conservative backbench Treasury Committee and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
Who is right? Rishi Sunak or Simon Pegg? The Prime Minister has called for a national mission for everyone to learn mathematics up to the age of 18. The actor accused him of wanting to create “a drone army of data-entering robots”.
In this debate, I must declare an interest: I am one of the few MPs with a degree in mathematics. I have two observations: first, I have been struck how the lack of numeracy in otherwise well-educated people makes them less able to cope with some basic tasks. I have often had to explain to intelligent graduates how interest rates work. Second, I have never felt like a data-entering robot.
I sat in the front row last week as the Prime Minister made his speech, and have to say that the reaction of the opposition and some commentators was disappointing. They said that with the problems the country faces, it was ludicrous for him to say the solution is teaching maths. But obviously, that is not what he said. He promised to get a handle major problems before the election, whereas extending maths teaching up to 18 was something for after the election – a policy for the future.
If you are going to embark on a big scheme like this, you need to be confident it will have the intended impact. I used to run a think tank, and have been responsible for upholding the quality of the Government’s impact assessments on its own policies, so I believe in evidence-based policy-making. So what is the evidence that teaching some form of maths up to 18 will be good for individuals, society more broadly, and the economy?
There are lots of practical challenges to teaching maths to 18, such as recruiting and training maths teachers. But is it the right thing to want to do?
There is no doubt that the UK has a major national problem with numeracy. About eight million adults in England have the numeracy skills of a primary school child. According to a study by the maths champion National Numeracy, 49 per cent of adults showed numeracy skills less than those expected of child leaving primary school.
Just one fifth have the numeracy level equivalent to passing a maths GCSE. Younger people are much less numerate than older people, who are by some measures three times more numerate. It cannot bode well in a digital economy that our most numerate workers are retiring.
We are in a worse situation than most other countries. The UK (and the US) really stand out in international league tables as countries with high levels of functionally innumerate adults. In contrast, Japan, South Korea and Finland stand out as having very few people with very low levels of numeracy.
Ok, so we have a numeracy problem – but does it matter? There is a huge swathe of academic literature on the impact on numeracy on economic growth and individual prosperity, and there is overwhelming evidence that this low level of numeracy makes both individuals and countries poorer.
It clearly pays for individuals to be more numerate. Data from the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) shows a wage premium of around 20 per cent for higher numerical and literacy skills across 32 countries. In a report from IZA (Germany’s Institute of the Study of Labour) called “What is the Economic Impact of Literacy and Numeracy?”, two Cambridge academics concluded that: “In many countries a significant proportion of the population still fails to gain basic skills in literacy and numeracy at school, which has negative consequences on future earnings and employment.”
A 2016 Dutch paper presented to the Journal of Economic Psychology called “Numeracy and Wealth” showed clearly that even when you control for all other factors, more numerate people are on average wealthier. It concluded: “A one-point increase in the numeracy score (11-point scale) of the respondent is associated with five per cent more personal wealth.” The effect increased over time, so that “over a five-year period, while participants with low numeracy decumulate wealth, participants with high numeracy maintain a constant positive level of wealth.”
Increasing numeracy will also help with levelling up and creating more opportunities for the disadvantaged. Other research shows that those from lower income backgrounds are particularly affected by lack of numeracy, and would most benefit from improving mathematical skills.
Numeracy also has an impact on the overall economic growth of a country. A seminal 2010 paper from the OECD “The High Cost of Low Educational Performance” estimated the economic impact of increasing mathematical skills, as measured by PISA scores, the standard used for international comparisons. Their conclusion was that: “A modest goal of all OECD countries boosting their average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years would increase OECD gross domestic product by $115 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.” In particular, the UK would get a $6 trillion lift in GDP over current lifetimes if we lifted PISA scores by 25 points.
The evidence for the Pegg argument does not stack up. He makes the case, quite rightly, that the UK has economically important creative industries. But the increases in numeracy benefit almost all sectors of the economy. Even the film industry has become dependent on mathematicians – the computer graphics which so many films now depend on, not least the new Avatar film, are driven by highly complex mathematical rendering. Netflix has become a dominant media force because of its use of mathematics in its AI-powered recommendation engine, telling people what else they would like to watch.
But Pegg – and all those journalists terrified of maths – are right about one thing. There is absolutely no point in teaching maths in ways that people resent or are not useful. That means that we absolutely should not make maths A level compulsory. But there is a lot of practical mathematics which would be very useful – working out compound interest rates, understanding probabilities, foreign exchange, the uses of statistics and big data. How do the recommendation engines of Netflix and Google work, and how has it powered them to global domination?
The UK is one of the few countries not to teach everyone maths to age 18. Our numeracy problem is only going to get worse unless we do something about it. Increasing digitalisation means that numeracy is becoming more important not less. A few decades ago it was assumed that those who govern us just needed to know classics or history, and there was a real disdain for maths. It is extraordinary that PPE at Oxford University – which so many of our prime ministers have studied, including Rishi – does not require maths to do the course.
So in short, the Prime Minister is right and Pegg is wrong. It will be good for individuals, equality, economic growth and society if the UK joins most of the rest of the world in requiring pupils to learn appropriate maths until they are 18. It is just the sort of long-term planning a Government should be doing.