Budget 2017: The education crisis which has forced Philip Hammond to channel billions into Maths teaching

Budget 2017: Philip Hammond funds maths teaching, but is the UK really the worst in the world at numbers?

Philip Hammond gave his budget speech today (November 22)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Whether you love maths or hate maths you'll probably agree that it is a pretty essential skill to have in life, and Philip Hammond, the man nicknamed 'Spreadsheet Phil', certainly thinks so.

Hammond announced his autumn budget today (November 22) and within that he pledged a £180 million investment in maths teaching. He said this was because he wants the UK to be a "competitive force in the global marketplace."

The Chancellor also announced that schools and colleges will be given an extra £600 for each student taking A-Level maths.

You may be wondering why Hammond seems to have such a focus on maths, given the vagaries of Brexit and all the other uncertainty surrounding the UK at present.

But, when you look at the numbers (which seems appropriate, given the topic at hand) they show clearly why Hammond is pumping money into Maths tuition.

Over the last few years various reports have painted a damning picture of the UK's performance in Maths education. Take the last edition of the influential Pisa rankings, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whiuch rank 15-year-olds across 27 countries based on their test performance.

The Pisa league table places the UK 27th for its Maths tuition. That doesn't sound too bad, but then you find out that it's the our  worst-ever performance. Little wonder that the organisation's education director, Andreas Schleicher, the education director, described Britain's performance as "flat in a changing world."

A separate OECD study, which covered 16-19 year olds and was published last January, found that UK was 22nd of 23 developed countries for their numeracy. This was a sad contrast to the performance of England's pensioners and those close to retirement, who were among the highest-ranked of their age group. The same study found that 7% of graduates aged 20 to 34 were so bad with numbers that they found it difficult to read a petrol gauge. That's around one in 14, for those for who struggle with such things (apparently that's quite a lot of us). 

Then there was a report by Plymouth University in 2011, which found Maths teachers in England are among the most poorly trained in the developed world. British teachers have also been heavily criticised for 'teaching to the test' - ignoring the wider requirements of students to push them through exams and boost their pass rates. You wonder why teachers get so worried, really, when you consider that the average student taking GCSE Maths has to get only 18% of questions right to get a grade C.

The backdrop to all this is a chronic teacher shortage which has come to cripped the UK education system. Last February, for example, a report emerged from the National Audit Office showing that 6% of the 29,787 available postgraduate teacher training places were unfilled in 2015-16. Given the bulging classes and back-breaking hours implicit in the modern education system, it's easy to see why so many are turning their backs.

So while we hammer Hammond for his uninspiring Budget, with its wishy-washy pledges and general lack of optimism, perhaps we should give him some credit for his Maths promises. Because, sadly, the numbers don't lie.