I love maths. There, I’ve said it, and have in the process alienated millions. Having said that, I love it while I understand it. Which is why the hate started flowing at the stage I had to learn about partial differential equations and Fourier transforms and (aagh!) binomial expressions. It is the reason I remained committed to field geology and geochemistry as a trainee geologist and why my eyes glazed over in the presence of geophysicists (or any physicists for that matter). But still, I love it, its elegance and rationality.

Following on an assertion in its pages that less than 50% of adults can do more maths than they were taught in primary school, a certain Mr Alan Mould of Chelmsford, in a wonderful letter in yesterday’s Times made the point that as a head or governor of a number of schools, as well as in various other roles in which you might reasonably have expected him to need maths, he could not recall that he had ever once used any secondary mathematics, and that “primary maths served me just fine”. We debated this at home and I showed the letter to various people at school. The straw poll suggested that, with the exception of learning about compound interest so we could all manage to understand APRs and mortgages, Mr Mould was pretty much on the money. Which, we must presume, he can count very well with his primary maths training.

The letter is a good starting point for two things.

In a much loved and well known TED talk back in 2006 (over 9 million people have watched it, which is a frightening statistic for those in charge of consultations at the Department of Education), Sir Ken Robinson raised the question of whether, in the grand scheme of things, dance is no less as important as maths, and should be taught with the same commitment to skill and inspiration as maths. Mr Mould’s letter should raise that question at least. What maths do we need and how are we going to get it?

Secondly, it means that the teaching of primary maths has to be VERY GOOD INDEED. Everywhere, in every class, in every school. Primary mathematics is the stuff that sticks and is the part of maths that informs and underpins life-long numeracy. There is no end of people telling you how to do this, but one of the saner voices recently was that of Carol Vorderman, who in essence suggested (my words, not hers) that we make a decision about the numeracy we will need for our lives and ask the primary curriculum to be most focused on that – principally on numbers and the number system. Not sure I totally agree with her, but a key principle of primary maths has to be this:

  • Mathematics that, by age 11, will have laid an immovable foundation for the numeracy needed across the rest of life, but which will also enable those who need mathematics as an applied foundation for later study, research and work, as well as those choosing to study maths for its own sake, to do so.

What has all this to do with faith in learning? Not much really, except to say that it is one of the tools that gives access and shape to God’s beautiful reality. People have written about maths and spirituality and I am sure a lot of tosh has been penned under that heading. I am not going to add to it. God loves us. He gave us a beautiful world to explore and play in and find out about. One of the tools to help us do that is mathematics. So learn it – and teach it VERY WELL!

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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