OPINION

UK Maths Failures 'cost 2.4bn'

January 17, 2009
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Despite the fact that the UK is doing very well in math education, there are still a bunch of students who are not really that clued up in mathematics. I see this all the time, so many people are out there who do not look after their bank accounts, their savings, their pensions and are unnecessarily poor. And this is avoidable, we are talking about people who, due to a fear of mathematics, are unable to claim benefits or even move up the jobs ladder.

Here's an interesting story. I quote:

Accountants from KPMG tracked children with poor numeracy and found they were more likely to be unemployed, claim more benefits and pay less tax. The report by KPMG estimates that the long-term costs of children leaving schools unable to do maths could be as high as £44,000 per individual up to the age of 37.

I am assisting in a small but global charitable enterprise called as SIFE. And one of the things that I do is to try to get hold of undergraduate students who have just entered into university. Research has proven that if you inculcate the right habits into the students at that point, then they are much more inclined to look after their financial health. Over the past few years, I have seen a good rise in the number of undergraduate students who are worrying about their financial future and put aside some money for investments (pension, stock market, etc.). But mind you, these are mostly business and economics students, which means that I have the self selection bias.

Few months ago, teaching at Swansea, there were about 400 students in 2 lecture theatres. One was video conferenced in, so I could not interact with them, but the one which I was, they were quite interested, and several claimed to have investment accounts. But most of the students were not interested in it for now. I can understand, neither did I when I was their age, but after the lecture, I asked around about the reason. The main reason as it turned out, was because they were scared of the whole numbers thing. They are boring, they make you have to think and financial future? who cares.

But these numbers give you an indication of the scale of the problem. When you are talking about a small country like UK, with a very good mathematics education system, and you still end up 2.4 billion pounds poorer because some are not mathematically aligned. Just imagine what it would be for other countries who are much below the scale on mathematics achievements? Lack of this knowledge costs society dearly.

So what explains this behaviour? I went to the person who knows more than me on everything, my teenage son. He likes mathematics and has shown an interest in mathematics since the beginning. Does all right in that subject. (a function off the old block? if you excuse the rather sad pun?) and helps others as well. Furthermore, he has businesses running (he buys sweets in packs and sells them individually to the students in his school, runs a garage sale during the summer, and he runs a business selling artifacts/user id's from World of Warcraft, he is also good at the stock market, although currently his positions are roughly 12% down - pretty good going, if I might say so. Mind you, he did invest £50 in Woolworths, so lets not get too excited). So both theory and practical is fine.

So what does he think of the tendency to do poorly in mathematics? His answer was curious. He said that he thinks his friends who did poorly were so because of their parents. I was very much taken aback with this statement but on reflection and his further explanation, it sort of made sense. He said, "Baba, I can come and ask you about mathematics, but quite a lot of parents hate it so they groan, roll their eyes, make excuses and many times swear at the kids/teachers for asking them about mathematics. So they come ask me". Now, this is interesting. Does this mean that if a student is weak at mathematics, and he is being given remedial education, we should make sure that the parents enroll as well? Makes sense, if you keep on tearing down maths, abuse and look down on people who do and like mathematics, they will not be very good at it, no?

Mind you, it is not that bad, Kumon Mathematics is quite popular this corner of the world. You have hordes of parents carting their kids around the neighbourhoods of UK getting them trained up in Mathematics, but there is still an element of the populace which is not doing good, and that has some pretty big impacts on society. Perhaps it would be good to reflect on what Russell said about Mathematics, "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture." Then again, how many people appreciate sculpture but unlike sculpture, if you hate or dont "do" mathematics, it will cost you.

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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#1
Kim
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January 17, 2009
05:02 PM

Very interesting assumptions here. Sounds like you have an intelligent son.

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