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Home > Politics

Alan Johnson: There's Nothing Square About These Roots

2 July 2006

So apparently learning mathematics in school is about to become 'cool' under new measures announced by Education Secretary Alan Johnson this week. Britain's kids are about to throw down their blades and Breezers and find out that numbers ain't butters.

In a speech peppered with - ha, ha, ha, hang on a second, ha, ha - *hilarious* maths-based gags ('today's complex world just doesn't add up without essential maths skills' and 'the formula for success is pretty simple' were just two to bring down the house), Johnson said that, to get the kids down with maths,
instead of all that algebra and quadratic equations crap, from now on they'll learn how to add, subtract and the rest by solving problems 'based around things which appeal to pupils, such as fashion, football, or the Olympics'.

'Pupils could be asked to consider how many flats will have to be built in the Olympic village to cater for all the athletes taking part in the Games in 2012' or 'asked to design a dress and then estimate how many yards of material will be necessary to produce it for, say, 100 girls', said The Independent. Which, yet again, shows that trying to guess just what pushes the buttons of the youth of today without actually talking to them is to invite peals of scornful laughter. What else will those who know best come up with? 'Multiply the number of Phil Collins' hit singles by the albums in Fleetwood Mac's back catalogue'? 'If 25 people attend the church disco and pay a pound to enter, how much profit will there be after buying the barley water and rich tea biscuits'?

The Government, as ever, is missing a trick here. It could show some joined up thinking by combining maths lessons with sex and relationship education, the dangerously poor standards of which we mentioned last week. Just imagine. 'Nadine, if your period is three weeks late, how many weeks is it before the good times are over?' or 'Kenzie, if you cut another kid in the dinner queue with your blade, how many pints of blood will he have to lose before you find yourself being sexually abused in Feltham Young Offenders' Institution?'. Companies could get in on the act and sponsor lessons in return for market research: 'Last week, Nuts was on the newsagent's shelf 30 centimetres from the floor. This week it is 200 centimetres from the floor next to the rest of the one-handed magazines. How far has it been raised and will you now be too embarrassed to buy it?'

The thing is, the intentions behind this idea are undoubtedly honourable. Johnson said that 'basic maths skills' were required to enable people to 'find a good mortgage, work out a pension or even ensure that their salary is correct'. He did fail, however, to explain why, if these matters are so easily conquered with a rudimentary head for figures, we need mortgage advisers, pensions advisers, accountants, the Inland Revenue and the multi-million pound industries that have sprung up around them. As with many of these eye-catching initiatives, the execution smacks less of wanting to help children with their numeracy and more like a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged suits trying show they're anything but, while arriving at the latest cheap, quick fix.

You also suspect that groovy maths lessons are less about the welfare of school children and more about producing another generation of compliant drones ready to assume their (carefully calibrated via endless testing) allocated position of optimum economic efficiency (in his speech Johnson spoke wistfully of Google and the Everests of cash boffins had earned its parent company by being clever with maths). That and continuing to bolster our fragile national ego by ensuring we don't 'fall behind the States, Japan, many of our European partners; and struggle to beat off the growing challenge of countries like China and India'.

The vast majority of school children don't want to write search engine algorithms or calculate the probability of the existence of black holes or compute the horseshit to benefit ratio of policies from desperate governments. How much maths do you need working in a call centre other than the sanity-saving ability to divide your day into manageable slices? And do those with a genuine enthusiasm and ability for maths need to be talked down to in this way? Surely the money (4 million has been promised) would be better spent protecting the swots from their less enthusiastic, anti-intellectual contemporaries.

Let's face it, 90 per cent of what is taught in maths lessons is utterly redundant and that knowledge is discarded 0.84676 nanoseconds (we worked it out) after the teacher says 'pens down please' at the end of the GCSE exam. For most of us, the hateful theorems, calculations and formulas that blighted our formative years are now long forgotten. Just about the only fraction left of that learning is the ability to calculate how many reality-suppressing six-for-a-fiver Stellas you can swill down without your liver exploding.

It's 42.

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