Reversing the Spiral of Decline

Dick Evans argues for a career-based curriculum

A recent report (Smith 2004) has again highlighted the concerns about the state of mathematics and its teaching in schools. Questions continue to arise about its purpose and centrality in the national curriculum, in addition, concerns are being raised about the quality and quantity of students entering higher education to study courses that require mathematics.

We live in a technological society based on maths and science, so it is perplexing that schools, colleges and universities continue to turn out students in large numbers who not only lack adequate numeracy skills but also constantly state that mathematics and numeracy are boring and irrelevant. The one positive result arising out of this whole depressing situation is that a vigorous nationai debate is now under way, albeit rather belatedly, on ways to tackle this complex and multidimensional problem.

From these debates about the current crisis in mathematics and numeracy a consensus is emerging about the equally concerning problems associated with the competence in these subjects in the workplace. Work-based mathematics and numeracy can become neglected aspects in discussions of these strategically important subjects with limited meaningful research and scant attention paid to what the real issues are.

Towards a new lexicology

This situation is partly explained by the fact that clear understandings of the factors and determinants involved in workbased numeracy have not been established. It is also essential to develop more precise definitions of the various elements involved. In any research there is a requirement that a precise lexicology is developed and adhered to. These requirements are important given the different mathematical and numeracy competences that exist in different workplace situations e.g. retailing/distribution, hospitality, process plant operations and health professions. The starting point must be in the answers to the following questions:

  • What mathematical and numerical skills are important in each identified work situation?
  • What attitudes towards numeracy and mathematics need to be developed by employers, employees and teachers?
  • How does the context of numeracy and mathematics in the workplace become formalised in order to bring about an identification and understanding of the kind of skills that are needed in a given setting?

In the limited research on numeracy in the workplace, the lack amongst many employees of‘a feeling for number’ has been highlighted as a problem. It would seem that the school curriculum particularly at primary level – until the advent of the numeracy strategy – paid insufficient attention to this extremely important element. The inability to manipulate and understand the fundamental operations associated with number creates later problems irrespective of the ultimate aspiration of the learners. For example, the inability to estimate and transpose numbers or equations makes for fundamental difficulties later on.

Too often in the past, reforms to the mathematics curriculum diluted these essential building blocks for numeracy skills. An illustration of this process is given in a classic book on mathematics by Jan Gullberg (Guliberg 1997).

In the 1950s educators and reformers introduced the language of sets as a basis for mathematical studies in schools. Many pupils started studying sets before they could count the number of elements in the sets. The language of sets and the surrounding ‘New Maths’ created chaos in schools in the 195Gs, 60s and 70s. It was a frustrating time in education. Strange symbols were introduced for seemingly simple things; teachers had to be retrained and most parents had no idea what their children were doing in mathematics.

‘The concepts of set theory are simple, but they require a precision and maturity of language that is beyond the power of many learners. An idea that was meant to simplify in fact complicated matters. A dull but useful drill was replaced by a dull and useless drill. In England and many other countries the New Maths created a generation with sometimes very limited arithmetic skill.’

This long but helpful quotation highlights an important issue in the wider debates on work based mathematics and numeracy namely the essential need to lay the foundations of these important subjects, The relevance and fitness of purpose of the school/college maths content needs to match the future needs of the learners.

This is important, as the young adults leaving these institutions will enter a wide variety of work situations that will in turn require varying degrees of numerical and mathematical skills and competence. Careful thought and analysis is needed to identify and then introduce the appropriate content at the right time into the curriculum.

The role of employers

Clearly there are fundamental elements that all learners require to learn but with the necessary differentiations that reflect their ability and career intentions. It must be accepted that very few will study mathematics to any depth whilst the vast majority will require a basic foundation in numerical skills and mathematical techniques in order to cope with the needs of their chosen employment. The curriculum needs to be configured to recognise these demands and at the same time excite and stimulate the learners whatever their needs.

One real challenge for the curriculum reformers is the fact that the whole curriculum is by definition restrictive, arising from the necessity of including other key curriculum subjects whether in the core offer or in course options. The expectation that numerical skills and mathematical techniques taught in schools and colleges should be capable of satisfying the total needs of the learners whatever their career intention is absurd. The content must be seen as relevant and be significantly informed by employers. Employers must be involved in assisting the identification of what is required in their particular work place. Sadly to date this essential element has been lacking. The primary challenge is to provide the necessary grounding to the learners both for those starting work and equally important for those in work.

A number of projects are currently under way looking at work-based numeracy and mathematics and hopefully the Basic Skills Bulletin will feature progress reports in future editions.


  • (Smith 2004) Post-14 Mathematics Enquiry, Adrian Smith, DfES 2004
  • (Gullberg 1997) Mathematics From the Birth of Numbers, Jan Gullberg, Norton and Company 1997

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *