The power of pandemic maths
A student in my class will occasionally pose the question: “Mr Seagull — what’s the point of maths?”
The past year has provided a compelling answer. Covid briefings, economics updates and the R number have all demonstrated the power of numerical awareness. Data and statistics have streamed out during the crisis, feeding the public appetite for information about the course of the disease and the fight against it.
The pandemic has hit the nation hard, emotionally and physically. However, with the vaccination programme in full swing, we can start to think about how the UK can rebuild its economy. And improving the numeracy of the nation is a fundamental building block to a successful recovery.
According to new research by Pro Bono Economics, poor numeracy is costing the nation as much as £25bn in lost earnings. Nearly three in five of those who have lost their jobs so far in the pandemic — 560,000 people — are likely to have low numeracy skills.
Most shocking of all, the report says 57 per cent of the working age adult population in England are estimated to have the numeracy level of children leaving primary school. This is clearly both a tragedy and unacceptable.
What can we do to reverse this state of affairs and help people gain confidence with numbers? It is not immediately obvious that the answer to this involves a Strictly Come Dancing champion, a Bake Off winner and a World Slam Champion rapping poet.
But if you were trying to assemble an Avengers-style team to inspire the nation and improve their numeracy, there would be few more enthusiastic advocates than Katya Jones, Peter Sawkins and Harry Baker, newly appointed as ambassadors for the charity National Numeracy.
Try three multiple choice everyday maths questions. Feel free to work it out on paper or use a calculator — this is not a test of mental arithmetic.
1. If a book costs £12.60 after a 10% reduction, what was the original price?
2. Anita’s dinner contains 960 calories of energy. What percentage is this of her target daily intake of 2,000 calories?
3. A mobile phone costs £699, including VAT at 20 per cent. How much of the purchase price is VAT?
d. None of these
Answers are below
This admirable organisation challenges negative attitudes to maths, influences public policy and offers practical ways for adults and children to improve their numeracy. On Wednesday May 19 it celebrates the UK’s National Numeracy Day; as a maths teacher, I have been an ambassador since the launch of the campaign in 2018.
This year, it is concentrating on areas vital for Covid recovery: supporting children’s numeracy, managing money and numeracy for work.
There are many virtual activities that individuals, parents and organisations can get involved with. For those looking for numeracy with a twist, seek no more. Strictly’s Katya is setting a numbers themed dance, Bake Off’s Peter with cupcake baking and poet Harry with a rap activity.
While Katya accepts she is “not a mathematician”, she admits the key to being comfortable is to be “curious about numbers”. My own research and experience in the classroom have convinced me there is no such thing as a “maths brain”. It is our experiences, positive or negative, that shape our attitude to the subject and the effort we apply to it.
Over the summer, we shall return to social drinks events and I am sure to encounter someone who will proudly declare that they couldn’t do maths at school. Whenever I hear this, I think — would we ever dare admit that we can’t read?
Others might remark that they were more “arts” than “sciences” at school. It is this sort of thinking that holds us back — that we’re either one or the other. In 1959, the physicist and novelist C.P. Snow, gave a lecture in Cambridge called, “The Two Cultures” in which he deplored this “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between literary figures and scientists. If we’re truly to solve the world’s problems, he said, we need the two to work together.
For its part, the government has pledged to increase the number of students continuing to develop their maths skills to the age of 18. In 2016 it introduced a “Core Maths” qualification, equivalent to an AS level, for all students who passed GCSE mathematics.
For this to make an impact, though, schools and colleges need additional funding to allow them to offer it to students alongside their A levels; and universities need to get behind it by including it among their alternative entry requirements.
Like baking or driving, maths is a skill and something that we can all improve on with practice. To give your numeracy skills an MOT, the “National Numeracy Challenge” only takes 10 minutes to do.
While trigonometry or Pythagoras’s theorem are unlikely to help you with your weekly budget, numeracy skills are one of the key pieces of the jigsaw that can help us make our money go further. In trying to recover as individuals and as a nation from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate the skills the UK will need to survive and thrive.
This is the moment to put numeracy at the heart of our individual and national recovery. The UK must be a proud numerate nation.
Bobby Seagull is a maths teacher and the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers”. A chartered accountant and former trader at an investment bank, he is resident quiz expert on the Channel 4 quiz series “The Answer Trap”. Twitter: @Bobby_Seagull; Instagram: @Bobby_Seagull
£14.00; 2. 48%; 3. None of these.