Wednesday 4 January 2023

This doesn't add up

 So Rishi is looking at plans to make all students study maths all the way up to 18.  As a STEM graduate, you might think I'd be in favour of this, but I have to disappoint you.  I'm not.  

A first problem that I have with this is that it's not even a proper announcement. It's only that he is "looking at" plans of this type.  That's not a policy.  It's not even a promise.  It's just an indication of what is currently wafting around the PM's mind as a possibility.  It's still perfectly possible for him to say that he looked at the plans, and didn't like them, so watched as they slid smoothly into the waste-paper basket.  It's obvious what he's up to - floating the idea to see how well it goes down before deciding whether to drop them without trace or move forward with them.  There are a variety of words (printable and otherwise) to describe that, but "leadership" isn't one of them.

There are also obvious problems with implementation, as it will direct a substantial part of our limited maths teaching resources on students who don't want to study it and have spent the previous 11 years demonstrating their inability to learn much of it. 

However, I think the main problem that I have with the suggestion is that it demonstrates a mode of thinking that is itself deeply problematic.  If I might be permitted a brief diversion, I recall an Economist article from long, long ago which argued against the proposition that hosting the Olympics was a good idea for a city - the perceived wisdom was that hosting the games meant lots of useful infrastructure would be built, and that would remain for the city to benefit from long after the games were finished.  Ah, argued the Economist, but if that infrastructure is useful and justified, then there will be a case for spending the necessary money regardless of whether the Olympics are in town or not - so if it is needed, build it anyway and in a form dictated by the needs of the city rather than in a form that suits the short-term needs of the games.  Then you have your lovely venue (or whatever) without having to cough up all the other Olympic-related overhead.  

I think there's something similar going on here.  If maths teaching up to 18 is useful but is not being provided by schools, why not?  One would have thought that if this was such a good idea, then a good school, staffed by skilled and conscientious teachers, would provide that useful teaching somewhere in the curiculum, entirely of their own volition?  It is valid to ask why that isn't happening - why it seemingly requires an instruction from the Prime Minister himself to make it so?

Perhaps they're not doing this because they don't think it's a good idea.  If so, then there would appear to be a difference of opinion between (on the one hand) Rishi, brandishing his experience as a former waiter, PPE graduate, and investment banker, and (on the other hand) experienced and conscientious educators.  I think I know who I'll side with on that one.

Perhaps they're not doing it because, although it's a good idea, there are better uses of the limited time available to the staff and students.  Again, I think I know who to side with.

Maybe they're not doing it because the staff are neither skilled nor conscientious.  If so, I think we may have more important issues to deal with that the exact date at which maths becomes optional.

Maybe (and I think this is probably the one), it isn't happening at the moment because the Department of Education lays down curricula for the schools (via the National Curriculum) which leave the schools with very little room for manoeuvre - and no incentive to be creative.  Maybe HMG is already meddling so much in school timetables that teachers simply don't have the freedom or flexibility to identify the students who might benefit from an initiative such as this and construct a course of lessons for them.  

Of course, that would mean that the plans Rishi is "looking at" are the governmental equivalent of swallowing a spider to eat the fly.  It has meddled and intervened so thoroughly that further meddling is needed in order to counteract the malign effects of previous meddles.  In fact, I think we're beyond the spider here, we're looking hungrily at the cow, and the horse behind it. 

No-one in government ever seems to ask "would it actually be better if we just STFU and went home?".  Not even in a nominally "Conservative" government.  And that, really, is what has irritated me enough about the announcement to actually sit down and write this. 

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