What Rishi Sunak got wrong about maths

1st June, 2023

As a professional nerd, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked what I think of Rishi Sunak’s enthusiasm for maths. It’s hard to know quite what to say. I agree with much of what Sunak said in his speech last month singing the praises of numeracy. Yet there is little sign of action to match the fine words.

It’s not just Sunak’s strange obsession with forcing people to learn extra maths at the age of 17, when the more pressing need is more and better maths teaching and support for younger children. It’s also the basic disconnect between rhetoric and policy. There is a long-running shortage of maths teachers in the UK, and teacher pay was cut by about 10 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2022, with additional cuts looming. Quite how this will help Sunak achieve his goal of a more numerate UK is a mystery.

It was Shakespeare, not square roots, who gave me a moment of clarity about all this. Shakespeare as interpreted by a chatbot, that is. A couple of weeks ago, a student’s homework assignment about Twelfth Night went viral. The essay that the student handed in began, “I’m sorry, but as an AI language model, I am not able to complete this assignment. However, I can provide you with some guidance on how to approach this essay.”

The teacher’s feedback was a not unreasonable: “ChatGPT – Rewrite the assignment in your own words.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry; this was a student so completely uninterested in their homework that they couldn’t be bothered to read even the first sentence of the essay that they’d asked ChatGPT to write for them, let alone follow the advice the chatbot was providing.

What has any of this to do with maths, you ask? Well, I see the same utter disengagement all around on the subject of numbers. To pick an amusing example: after billionaire Michael Bloomberg failed to come close to becoming US president in 2020, someone on Twitter gloated that “Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The US population is 327 million. He could have given each American $1 million and still have money left over.”

Of course, if you have $500mn and you divide it between 327 million people, you’ll run out before you’ve given each of them their second dollar. What’s astonishing about the tweet is not the error – we all make mistakes – but the fact that on prime-time television, senior journalists Brian Williams and Mara Gay discussed the tweet without noticing that it was absurd. Neither of them, nor the MSNBC production team, seem to have checked the arithmetic.

Perhaps this is utter innumeracy; perhaps they did check and didn’t spot the error. I doubt it. More likely the entire TV crew displayed the same attitude as the hapless “student” of Shakespeare: they didn’t feel that even the most basic check was worth the five seconds it would take.

When calculators first became widespread, people worried that students would use them to cheat. “You need to learn arithmetic because you won’t always have a calculator with you,” I remember being told. But we always have calculators with us these days. Perhaps people should have worried less about the fact that people would use calculators to cheat and more about the fact that people wouldn’t bother to use the calculator at all.

What is missing in both cases is a cluster of related attributes: motivation, curiosity, confidence and a sense of what is possible. People can’t be bothered to put the effort in, don’t care what they might discover, feel they couldn’t dig deeper if they tried and don’t have a sense of what they might achieve if they did. We have allowed too many young people to find themselves in this predicament.

If you feel this way about much of the world around you, life is going to seem difficult and you will miss out on many opportunities. But if you only feel this way about arithmetic in snarky tweets, congratulations: you may have a bright future ahead of you as a cable TV anchor.

Sunak phrased the problem as an economic one: people without basic numeracy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed as the numerate, he said. (Let us gloss over the fact that this statement conflates correlation and causation; the point is well taken even if the logic is patchy.)

But there is more at stake here: if people feel helpless in the face of numbers, they will be vulnerable and frustrated from the supermarket to the voting booth. It is no basis for a healthy, happy society.

Tempting as it is to offer a neat solution, I don’t have one. It surely cannot hurt to give children more mathematical support, from well-trained and well-paid teachers, much earlier. It cannot hurt, either, to teach children about the tools they can use to solve practical problems in the world around them, whether those tools are a chatbot, an internet search or even the humble calculator.

Otherwise, the costs are grave. When I was a child, my mother used to teach adult numeracy classes. Sometimes she would come home mournfully describing how helpless her students felt in the face of numbers, and the suffering that had caused them as they looked for jobs and tried to stay away from people who would exploit them. But they were all determined to learn, and they all understood what was at stake. Alongside the pitiful anecdotes there were stories of hope.

If young people feel that maths is a tool they can use to avoid being scammed, to help spot clues or peel away the surface of what they hear and read, or even (perhaps) to help get a better-paid, more satisfying job, that is all to the good. Fundamentally that is not about calculus or cosines. It’s about curiosity and confidence.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 May 2023.

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