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Everyone can do mathematics – and frequently does

Published: Oct 20, 2014 4 min read

STEM learning

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Royal Society fringe event where Dame Julia Higgins of the Royal Society, presented their vision for mathematics and science for the next 20 years.

Currently, we will not meet the UK skill needs for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related jobs for the next 20 years. The UK has huge strengths in mathematics and science, but there is a significant problem for STEM as we face rising competition from overseas and long term changes are needed.

One of the most interesting discussions from my point of view was whether society “can do mathematics”.

During my early career I trained and qualified as an accountant. When I meet people, we generally end up talking about what you have done. As soon as they hear I studied and qualified as an accountant, I usually have the response “I can’t do mathematics”.

Can everyone do mathematics?

Well yes I believe we do. We work out our change when paying for items with cash at a till, we manage our bank account and decide the portion sizes when cooking meals. All relevant mathematics skills.

One example that I shared at the fringe event was when I used to manage apprentices in a local college. I would frequently be visiting hairdressing apprentices in their functional skills session, and listen to them quite clearly stating that they “can’t do maths” and yet, in a salon setting, they were able to assess the nature of their client’s hair, and decide the quite complex mixture of colours and peroxides to meet the client’s expectations for their new hairdo.

They were more than competent at working out the ratios of colour tints to developer and the percentage of peroxide needed to lift the colour for the client, but most surprising of all, was that they were blissfully unaware that these were mathematics skills that they were using.

Everyone can do basic mathematics, addition, subtraction, ratios, but when faced with the question of mathematics, people often remember the quadratic equations, and Pythagoras theory, which is not so readily used by everyone in everyday life but is still vitally important to the engineers of our future.

Currently, we will not meet the UK skill needs for STEM related jobs for the next 20 years

I believe that the Royal Society’s vision for the development of science and mathematics over the next 20 years is key. This should be embraced by whichever government is successful next May, and a course should be set to achieve those goals.

There is a significant skills gap that needs to be addressed and the Royal Society puts teaching at the heart of this development.

In order to develop this we need a strong teaching profession, with a good supply of mathematics and science teachers, recognised by the STEM community. We heard from an A level student, on the day, who clearly had a passion for mathematics and science, and had developed these from inspiring teachers.

I believe that good high quality Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is vital for people to join the teaching profession, and more importantly to continue their teaching careers. This CPD should not just be about Progress 8 measures, or Ofsted expectations, but teachers should have access to subject specific CPD, to refresh and update their knowledge and to keep young people inspired to continue to higher levels see the relevance of mathematics and science to future careers and enable UK plc to grow and retain a future workforce in STEM.

We have a range of mathematics specific professional development occurring, whether it is a one day course near you or one of the multi-day residential courses at the National Science Learning Centre in York.

If you are interested in inspiring your young people to look at future STEM careers, but don’t know enough about what they could do, then register for our Teacher Industrial Partners' Scheme (TIPS) to spend a fortnight working with local industry to understand what they need from today’s young people tomorrow.