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Mathematics is important

Introduction and general comments


Many of the reports explain why mathematics matters, why is it important that we
produce young people who are good at mathematics and why it has become increasingly
urgent that we address the problems with mathematics education.
It is generally agreed that [m]athematics is a critical skill for all, including to those who
have not achieved a Grade C at GCSE by age 16 (Hodgen & Marks, 2013, p. 1). Further,
an argument is put forward that in todays world of rapid change (ACME, 2011a, p. 1),
particularly in terms of technological change, the demand for mathematical skills is
increasing (Burghes, 2011; Norris, 2012; Vorderman, Porkess, Budd, Dunne, & Rahmanhart, 2011).
Mathematics is also important as a school subject because not only is it needed for the
sciences (Norris, 2012), but it also provides access to undergraduate courses in, for
example, engineering, psychology, sciences and social sciences (Norris, 2012). The
argument is made that mathematics, and in particular statistics, is important even for
non STEM subjects at university (ACME, 2011a; British Academy, 2012; Porkess, 2012).
The main arguments for the importance of mathematics, however, fall into three further
areas: mathematics is a core skill for all adults in life generally; a mathematically well
educated population will contribute to the countrys economic prosperity; and
mathematics is important for its own sake.

Mathematics is a core skill for life


It seems to be generally agreed that in order for adults to function (reasonably well) in
an increasingly complex world, they require a basic level of numeracy (All Party
Parliamentary Group on Financial Education, 2011; Burghes, 2012; Parliamentary
Office of Science and Technology, 2013; Gove in foreword to Vorderman et al., 2011).
Numeracy, or mathematical knowledge, is seen as a crucially important (Ofsted, 2012;
Vorderman et al., 2011) which is increasingly necessary in a range of life-skills, such as
personal finance, (e.g. choosing a mortgage, budgeting, phone contracts) and datahandling. (All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education, 2011; Norris, 2012;
Vorderman et al., 2011)

The importance of the need for all citizens to understand data and view statistics
critically is strongly made (British Academy, 2012; Porkess, 2012). The argument is that
more and more debate in society rests on statistical arguments, particularly with
increasing amounts of data within a digital society, and an understanding of these
arguments is necessary for informed debate and decision making (British Academy,
2012; Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013; Porkess, 2012; Vorderman
et al., 2011). For example, the British Academy (2012) states that:
Without statistical understanding citizens, voters and consumers cannot play a full
part. To call politicians, media and business to account, we need the skills to know
when spurious arguments are being advanced. (p. 7)
There seems to be little doubt that mathematical skills are increasingly needed in the
workplace. Hodgen and Marks (Hodgen & Marks, 2013) distinguish between the
sophisticated mathematics used by specialists with degrees in mathematics or with
substantial mathematics in specialised workplaces and the use of lower level
mathematics in the workplace.
Mathematics is clearly important in the first of these, and it seems that there is an
increase in these sorts of jobs (Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2012). The
point is made that mathematics (STEM) subjects can lead to a wide choice of good
careers (Finegold, 2011; Porkess, 2012).
In terms of the second, it seems that quantitative skills are important in a very wide
range of jobs (ACME, 2011a; Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Norris, 2012; Vorderman et al.,
2011).
General numerical skills are valued in some sectors, but in many they are seen as
essential. It seems that using statistics and probability effectively is integral to a variety
of tasks such as costing, risk assessment and quality control and modelling and problem
solving are becoming more increasingly important. (ACME, 2011a; British Academy,
2012; Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Vorderman et al., 2011).
Importantly, People in the workplace need to be able to make sense of the mathematics
they are using if they are to avoid making mistakes in the workplace. (Hodgen & Marks,
2013, p. 1).

While the paragraphs above were concerned making an argument for the importance of
mathematics for the individuals job prospects, clearly creating and filling these jobs also
contributes to the countrys economic prosperity. However, the argument for the
importance of mathematics in terms of economic prosperity is further expanded.

Mathematics is key to economic prosperity


It is assumed that the country wants to remain competitive in the world economy and
suggested that mathematics is crucial for economic development and for technical
progress (ACME, 2011b, p. 4). This point is made in various ways, both in terms of
mathematics more generally (Lampl in the foreword to Hodgen & Marks, 2013; Ofsted,
2011, 2012; Gove in the foreword to Vorderman et al., 2011,Whitehouse & Burdett,
2013), STEM education (Archer, Osborne, & DeWitt, 2012; Parliamentary Office of
Science and Technology, 2013) and in terms of specific mathematics such as the ability
to make sense of data (Clark-Wilson, Oldknow, & Sutherland, 2011; Porkess, 2012). In
the report STEM education for 14-19 year olds, for example, the authors state that:
In its 2011 report, The Plan for Growth, the Government pronounced education the
foundation of future economic success. It highlighted the importance of science and
mathematics and the key role to be played by STEM in driving innovation, growth and
economic recovery. (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2013, p. 1)
It seems that driving innovation and growth relies on cutting-edge research and
ambitious business and industry. The point is made that to meet the globally
competitive ambitions of a knowledge-based economy (Nurse in the foreword to Royal
Society, 2011, p. vii) the quality and size of the pool of young people engaged in
mainstream mathematics and science education is crucial. (Royal Society, 2011)
It is argued that it is from this pool that researchers in innovative science and
technology research, are taken. Even within the softer sciences, quantitative methods
are key to both blue skies research and effective evidence-based policy (British
Academy, 2012). Further, quantitative skills are needed by researchers in the social
sciences and humanities to enable effective engagement with STEM researchers, both
within interdisciplinary research teams and in general intellectual dialogue. (British
Academy, 2012).

It is also this pool that feeds the supply of scientists needed within industry to perform
the most demanding roles in areas that are crucial to the ongoing economic prosperity
of the country. As Vorderman et al imply, mathematical skills underpin the attributes
such as problem solving which are of critical importance within modern industrial
environments, such as the pharmaceutical industry. (Vorderman et al., 2011)
The majority of the reports address the here and now, and while it is perhaps obvious
that the country should be building capacity for the economic prosperity of future
generations, this is only sometimes explicitly stated. For example, in the Royal Society of
the Arts report, Norris states that
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industries are becoming
increasingly central to economic competitiveness and growth and will provide many
of the jobs of to- morrow for young people. (Norris, 2012, p. 4)
However, some reports argue for the importance of mathematics education (see below);
in most there is perhaps an assumption that the mathematical education of future
generations is of crucial importance for the continued prosperity of the nation.
However, the report by Vorderman et al has as its focus mathematics education in
general, and it makes the strong suggestion that, unless mathematics education is
improved, the country will be left behind in terms of economic growth.

Mathematics is beautiful
A few reports suggest that mathematics is important for its own sake, and that for many
people, mathematics is important because it is inherently beautiful and elegant.
It is generally agreed that mathematics makes an essential contribution to a good
rounded education, playing a vital role in our culture and civilisation. (ACME, 2011a;
Vorderman et al., 2011). Without a sound understanding of mathematics appreciation of
a range of other educational disciplines such as music, the sciences, geography and
economics is compromised. (Vorderman et al., 2011)
A further argument is made that mathematics is important because it encourages and
develops important ways of thinking. For example, the Vorderman report states that

mathematics is critical in fostering logical and rigorous thinking (Vorderman et al.,


2011, p. 11)

Mathematics education is important


The reports chosen address mathematics education. However, interestingly there is
much less written in them about why mathematics education is important (as opposed
to mathematics). Rather it seems that it is assumed that improving mathematics
education will somehow solve the perceived problems in mathematics in this country.
(The problems are discussed below).
Some reports, however, discuss the importance of mathematics education explicitly. For
example, Ofsted (2011) claims that ensuring that children have a good grounding in
mathematics will equip children for their future lives by developing the skills valued in
industry and university. Vorderman et al hint at the importance of mathematics
education:
The effect of mathematics education on an economy is understood in many leading
industrialised nations, including those of the Pacific Rim, whose students perform
particularly well in international comparisons. (Vorderman et al., 2011, p. 3)
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Financial Education suggests that the country
has a duty to equip our young people properly through education to make informed
financial decisions. We believe that financial education is a long term solution to the
national problem of irresponsible borrowing and personal insolvency. (2011, p. 4)