The recently published “maths task force” report, A world-class mathematics education for all our young people, made headlines when the chair of the task force, TV presenter Carol Vorderman, recommended that students should study maths up to the age of 18.
The report focused on the need to improve young people’s mathematical skills in order to increase their employability. It also explored how many young people who don’t achieve expected standards in maths at a relatively early age have little chance to engage with the subject later on.
One key factor which didn’t widely appear in the media coverage surrounding the report was the need to link learning in subjects like maths to careers. This is critical for engaging young people with the subject and enabling them to understand the value of developing mathematical skills.
At school, I, like many young people, didn’t get on very well with maths. I didn’t really understand what the point of studying it was.
I understood the value of being able to calculate basic numbers, etc, but long division, trigonometry, ratios and the like made no sense to me because I didn’t see how I’d ever need to use them unless I became a mathematician.
A number of years later, while I was working in a FE college, I saw the impact of linking maths to careers.
At an open day, one prospective student was enthusiastically enquiring about enrolling in a hair and beauty course. The tutor was discussing the content of the course, when the student suddenly realised that there was a maths unit that she would have to study.
The student immediately shook her head and stated that there was no way she was going to study maths. She had hated the subject at school and believed that she had chosen a vocation where she wouldn’t need those skills.
Having obviously been faced with similar reactions before, the tutor calmly asked the student what career she hoped the course would lead to. The student said that she wanted to become a hairdresser and eventually own her own salon. The tutor then asked the student how she would go about mixing hair colours without the ability to understand and work with ratios and percentages.
The tutor also asked how she intended to run a profitable business without being able to calculate costs and prices, etc.
Once the student saw the maths skills in the context of the career she aspired to be in, her opinion changed.
I saw similar examples in other curriculum areas including hospitality and motor vehicle engineering, where students who previously weren’t engaged in maths changed their attitude when the subject was made relevant to them and their future.
The challenge is to engage young people in maths from an early age and keep them engaged throughout their education. To do this, there needs to be greater integration between subject teaching and careers education, so that students understand the future value of what they are learning.