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We need culture change in attitude to numeracy

SCOTS need to be numerate to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Improving numeracy is vital for building a strong economy that can compete globally. At an individual level, it is important for accessing careers in the "stem" subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and for maximising life chances. The correlation between poor numeracy and disadvantage is even stronger than the link with illiteracy. Adults who struggle with numbers are not only unable to help their children with maths homework but may have problems deciphering a pay slip or pension statement, understanding a recipe or even administering medicine. Poor numeracy can stunt a career and affect self-esteem.

In the last international comparisons, the Pisa figures compiled in 2009, Scottish pupils came close to the international average for mathematics but that is not good enough. In The Herald today, Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of the Curriculum for Excellence, says Scotland can, nay must, do better at maths or see developing countries like China surge ahead of us. Much has been said on this subject in recent years but often it has amounted to little more than lip service.

At its most basic, mathematics has an image problem. Commonly people will say that they "just can't do maths" with almost a perverse pride, while admitting to poor reading skills is a source of shame. The danger for those who declare themselves to be "rubbish at maths" is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps numeracy has lived in the shadow of literacy for too long. It may be because reading for pleasure is an idea that is readily understood, whereas mathematics lacks such emotional pull. Also literacy is seen as a gateway to communications and other subjects, while the importance of maths in accessing other disciplines and the world of work is often overlooked.

Mr Bloomer suggests primary school teachers should be expected to have passed Higher maths. Currently they need only a Standard Grade pass. It is certainly arguable, though some would maintain that teachers do not need to have mastered quadratic equations and trigonometry to teach primary pupils the fundamental building blocks of mathematics. Perhaps it is more important to embed the basics, help children discover the built-in patterns in numbers and imbue the subject with a sense of fun. After all, it is often the bad memories people have of school maths that influences their negative attitudes to it.

Teaching unions are likely to point to Scottish Government statistics showing most of Scotland's primary school pupils are meeting expectations for maths. The last Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed the drop-off in achievement in maths was in the first two years of secondary, a situation that the Curriculum for Excellence is designed to address.

Meanwhile, Mr Bloomer is right to call for a cultural change in our attitude to numeracy. When thousands of school leavers went into unskilled jobs in manufacturing, poor numeracy could go unnoticed. In an economy dominated by the service sector, poor numeracy is a major handicap for both individuals and the economy as a whole. Being hopeless at maths should no longer be a boast.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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