Thursday 5 January 2023

The real problem of innumeracy


Despite deploying his very best efforts, even Rishi Sunak can’t be completely wrong about everything all the time, and this week he managed to get one thing at least half right in identifying that innumeracy among school leavers is a problem. His ‘solution’ (compulsory maths until age 18 for all English pupils), however, tells us rather more about his own tenuous connection with the meaning of numbers than it does about addressing the problem. The curriculum has probably changed since my school days, when taking double maths at A level was a soft option for someone like me who was lucky enough to have a fairly natural grasp of numbers and numerical operations: learning a few principles and formulae and knowing how to apply them was much easier than having to cram a whole load of facts into my head for examination purposes. A level maths was not the same thing as O level maths, however – I remember one maths teacher describing the former as ‘hard sums’ whilst the latter was ‘easy sums’.

It's not entirely clear what Sunak has in mind. I can’t believe that he’s stupid enough to believe it a good idea to put people who haven’t got to grips with ‘easy sums’ through the trauma of trying to learn how to do ‘hard sums’; and Calculus with its differentiation and integration doesn’t immediately strike me as being relevant to the future lives and careers of most pupils. But the alternative is that he’s planning the even stupider approach of forcing those who have failed to master ‘easy sums’ after five years of secondary education through another two years of the same. The logic of adding an extra 40% of input to a process which is clearly failing many pupils is ‘interesting’ to say the least, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of what it is that the low levels of numeracy are actually telling us - as well as a lack of the 'analytical ability' which he claims to be so important.

It's far from being the only example. Yesterday, he and other ministers were keen to tell us that the NHS has all the money it needs to solve its capacity problems. There’s some doubt as to whether that’s actually correct even in purely numerical terms, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for a moment at least. If the NHS lacks 10,000 doctors, and employing a doctor costs £80,000 a year, then chucking £800 million into NHS coffers does indeed ‘solve’ the problem. It is, though, rather divorced from the real life question of what that 10,000 represents, and assumes (in the manner of basic economic theory) that there are 10,000 doctors sitting on a shelf somewhere, just waiting for someone to offer them a job. In reality, there is a lengthy lead time involved in recruiting doctors with the right specialisations in the right locations – and an even longer lead time if they need to be trained first. That involves understanding that the 10,000 isn’t just a factor in an equation, it’s a symbolic representation of a serious problem. Such a simplistic mathematical response to the needs of the NHS is made worse when another department of the same government is performing its own mathematical computations to conclude that recruiting trained doctors overseas is ‘cheaper’ than training our own, and yet another department performs its own sums and attempts to reduce the number of overseas migrants.

It's an approach for which Sunak’s ‘financial’ background did much to prepare him. Bankers ‘know’ that if you can reduce the cost of production (X) and increase the productivity rate of staff (Y), the amount of profit flowing into their accounts (Z) will increase. But Z is the only factor which they have any ability to relate to the real world. The impact of job cuts for some and longer hours for others on people, lives and wellbeing – which is what X and Y actually represent – is beyond their comprehension. It’s all just mathematics. That really goes to the heart of Sunak’s category error in talking about levels of innumeracy among school leavers. The bigger problem is not that many do not have the ability to handle numbers well, it’s that some of those who can handle numbers well have lost all conception of what those numbers represent. And by some strange process, these are the people who end up in charge of the government and the economy.


Gav said...

Wonder if this is where Mr Sunak gets his ideas from:

He could do worse.

As an aside, a grounding in calculus could be useful for understanding how, as and when inflation comes down, prices can (and usually do) still keep going up.

Spirit of BME said...

I think some of ‘Risky’ Sunak`s forecast is based on high probability like ‘the temperature in July will be higher than January.’ However, he talked about Maths, and I had to smile as he clearly does not understand sums, as seen in the way he hosed money around in the crazy lockdown.
Having said that I see where he is coming from, in that if you look at the Education Factories in Asia children are churned out having done Maths and gone through rigour, logic, and an appreciation of rules. This has enhanced the economies of Japan, South Korea and India and built high end industries in chips and computer science.
Bright kids in England (like The Boy Johnson) in the past were sent to do Classics, which involved logic. rigour and learning ancient Greek which gave birth to European values. Maths has in a way replaced this as the language is international – the rules do not change and the values are not in dispute e.g., one is one, ten is ten and so on. The big downside is that Maths teaches you to obey and respect the rules and does not teach you to think out of the box, where innovation is born.