The cult of maths has brainwashed our schools – and Rishi Sunak has fallen for it too
The cult of maths knows no bounds. It rules global education like no other subject, its status akin to medieval Latin. The reason is that it is so easily measurable. Maths is right or wrong. Its targets are international, its results classifiable, its league tables definitive for any government. Immune to leftwing bias and rightwing ideology, maths can run like a ramrod through every school worldwide, a statistician’s dream.
Like many of my generation, I did basic and advanced maths to age 16. This embraced complex algebra, trigonometry, quadratic equations, differential calculus, the use of logarithms and old-fashioned slide rules. I cannot recall ever using one jot of it, all now forgotten. Nor can anyone I have asked from a reasonably wide circle. It was a waste of time, while I was taught no geography and little history.
We can be intrigued, even charmed, by numbers. I was fascinated by India’s maths genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, and his relationship with Cambridge colleague GH Hardy. The latter gloried in the beauty of maths and hoped “that my mathematics could never be applied”. Equally I delight in Marcus du Sautoy’s efforts to bring maths to life through broadcasting, for those so inclined. There may indeed be a Hardy or a Turing deep inside anyone, as there may be a concert pianist or an astrophysicist. That is what specialist teachers are for. It does not require compulsory maths to 18.
A feature boasted by Sunak’s old school, Winchester, is called “div”. Each day begins with an hour on a subject in the public eye, chosen by a teacher but researched, introduced and conducted by pupils themselves. The objective is “learning to communicate effectively, engaging civilly in discussion and argument”. It lies at the foundation of a liberal education. Div is more core than maths.
The national curriculum and its obsession with measurement has degenerated into rote learning and memory. Nearly 40 years old and dating from before the internet, it has become vulnerable to cheating, tutoring and cramming, to serve the purposes not of pupils but solely of a state data bank. It has driven sports, arts and creativity into oblivion and reduced schools to exam factories. If Labour cared, it would not wait for office but appoint a commission of curriculum reform right now.
Rishi Sunak is the first uk prime minister of Asian origin though born in Southampton Hampshire.