Maths - An Enabling Tool For Life

Issue 99

By Mr Will Scott, Principal at Dame Allan's Schools, Newcastle.

Maths education has returned to the forefront of public discussion recently, with research from education charity Teach First discovering that 54% of girls and 41% of boys lack confidence in maths. Fears have arisen that this aversion will put off pupils who are academically able to pursue careers in maths – and indeed, in STEM subjects more broadly – resulting in fewer opportunities and a notable gender bias.

Similarly, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak continues to champion a more long-term maths education up to age 18, arguing that ‘maths needed to be made more accessible so children do not fear it.’

My experience of school-taught maths was probably pretty standard (40-odd years ago) but, although I have no great skill in maths today, I am probably more interested in maths than I have ever been. When I was young, I loved numbers. So much so that my parents bought me a book to keep me quiet – Figuring: the joy of numbers by the “human computer” Shakuntala Devi, where I did indeed find enjoyment in manipulating numbers, finding patterns and wrestling with mental arithmetic.

But why are we so concerned with maths taking any sort of priority in education today?

Primarily, maths is an enabling tool for life – in fact it is a multi tool. It has a lens for examining problems and a screwdriver for disassembly and reassembly of puzzles. It also has a hammer for smashing nonsense. And a light for finding your way in the dark. A bit like being able to read, write, listen and speak, maths is helpful for life. Rather than a monster to be slain, it should be seen as a companion, something that will help us along our way.

Of course, there are other useful subject tools – I can think of a few that I use from time to time, such as physics – electricity; speed, distance and time. And chemistry – cooking and painting; biology – species and evolution; geography – rivers, mountains and cities. In fact the list just goes on. So why should maths command our attention for more time and longer in our learning lives?

It is important to note that maths will present learning opportunities for all of us throughout our lives. It is around us everywhere regardless of whether we recognise it or not and it underpins an understanding of many other technical matters. For example, even basic financial literacy will go a long way towards supporting children through later life.

Additionally, a bit like having a strong command of English, a confident user of maths has another language, a way of understanding the world and communicating with others. And that world is becoming increasingly full of opportunities for people that ‘speak’ maths, even if it is not at the core of the role such as in science research, or coding. And so education must develop to prepare our young people for the world.

In my opinion, this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to do maths until age 18, but it does mean that our missed opportunity grows each and every year that young people leave school, college or university without a confident ability in maths.

And so what is the solution? As well as the importance of offering an engaging maths curriculum, I believe it starts at home. Parents make a decisive difference to their children’s confidence with maths. How do we know this? Because cultural attitudes to maths are the only significant factor which describes the differences between maths scores in the UK and higher performing countries.

What should we do differently as parents, therefore? Here are my tips for parents of boys and girls alike:

1. Don’t let children hear that parents didn’t enjoy maths, or do well at it – that’s a ready made excuse.

2. Do engage children in numerical puzzles and games, mental maths challenges and the like. And don’t hesitate to beat them, until they beat you!

3. Insist that getting things wrong is not failure. The only failure is not trying.

To find out more about Dame Allan’s Schools, from Nursery to Sixth Form, please visit

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