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Why les deux sacred cows of the curriculum don't add up

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 March 2016

John White
I loved the algebra I did for my School Certificate in 1949 – and have never used it since. Ditto for a lot of the geometry. I agree with Simon Jenkins’s Guardian piece on March 10 that we make a fetish of mathematics in the secondary school. Like Kevin Williams,  I’d say the same about foreign languages (MFL) – for most people another non-usable subject. Post-basic maths and foreign languages make up nearly half of the five EBacc subjects which nearly all students will take GCSEs from 2020
But why use so much of their valuable school time on two subjects which only future specialists among them are likely to use? Some post-basic maths, agreed, is essential, not least basic statistics for civic education, plus the limited amount necessary to understand elementary science. This apart, we are in totem territory.
There is no good argument why more advanced mathematics or MFL should be compulsory for all up to 16. That said, there is a case for compulsory short taster courses in both subjects, enabling students to continue studying them if they really want to do so.
Why are maths and MFL so prized? Rather than dead horses to do with logical thinking and international communication (…but in a world of English as a lingua franca…?), I would rather flog the government’s own case for them.
Last July Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, was reported as saying that ‘the purpose of education in every subject’ is to teach young people their ‘fundamental principles’ so that they can ‘read around the subject and understand developments as they happen as they go through life’.
I wonder how many of us remember the last time we spent an hour or two reading around algebraic formulae or French verb formations?
When we ask ‘Why these two subjects?’ we may be asking for good reasons, or we may be asking about explanations. As the former are thin on the ground, we may do better with the latter. How have so many people come to rate these subjects so highly?
Attachment to tradition must be part of the answer. For a century and a half, Maths and MFL have been widely seen as two of the pillars of secondary education. Before then Latin and Greek were central. From the 1860s to the 1960s, maths and MFL, along with English, history and geography, made up the staple curriculum for the small minority of young teenagers in grammar schools. Some people, including Nick Gibb and Educaton Secretary Nicky Morgan, would seem to be nostalgic for those times.
But there may be more to it. Simon Jenkins says the reason why politicians are obsessed by maths ‘is depressingly clear’: it is ‘merely an easy subject to measure, nationally and internationally.’ He is on the right lines. Both maths and MFL are the least problematic subjects for examiners to mark, with clear-cut right answers and little or nothing left to subjective judgement.
In 1858 they were both compulsory subjects in the new London University Matriculation Exam, which helped to trigger the rise of exam-dominated secondary schooling over the next hundred years. Classical languages apart, the other compulsory subjects were English, science, history, geography. You may have spotted that these are identical to the EBacc subjects.
So the association of maths and MFL with secondary examining goes back a long way. The government wants virtually everyone, not just the very few, to be examined in its EBacc subjects at 16. Is this an advance towards a more equal society? Or does it mask a traditional British attachment to hierarchy and élites? Seeing how well those from private and top state schools (or enjoying extra tuition) do in the exam stakes, this is worth considering. That early enthusiast for public examinations, W.E. Gladstone, may have been before his time. In 1854, ‘he told Lord John Russell… that in open competition the upper class would, on the average, prove superior to the rest of the nation’.
Nothing in this blog denies that students who enjoy languages or more advanced maths should be encouraged to study them. On the contrary. There should be far more space in secondary schooling for young people to throw themselves with enthusiasm into worthwhile activities they love. These include practical and other pursuits far beyond the borders of the 1858/2016 core curriculum. This would help to reduce the huge numbers of U UK teenagers who feel pressured by schoolwork, making them among the least happy in the world.
John White is co-editor with Steve Bramall of Why Learn Maths? (London: IOE 2000). His own chapter ‘Should mathematics be compulsory for all until the age of 16?’ is freely available here

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