Can everyone 'do' maths?


The government wants everyone to do maths – but has not stopped to think if everyone can, says Hilary Moriarty.

In the great debate about too many students choosing arts subjects over mathematics at A level, very few people seem to be acknowledging the unpopular truth that some people can’t do maths.

Obviously, I don’t mean, “at all”!

For a civilised, sophisticated society in a post-industrial highly technological age, it is surely perfectly reasonable to expect all students at 16 to pass GCSE exams in maths and at least one science. I don’t even believe the exams at that stage are that difficult, and I do believe that really good teaching between the ages of five and 16 can probably make a difference to a student’s chances of achieving a grade of C or above. This much we should expect.

But the pass rates in maths GCSE are disappointing: provisional figures for 2014 (Student Performance Analysis, GCSE grades) show 62.4 per cent of candidates attaining A* to C.

Mind you, I can talk: the pass rate in English – for most candidates their own language, getting a fair amount of use one way or another – was 61.7 per cent. 

And I do believe the pass rate in both, fundamental subjects, should be higher. Every citizen should be able to attain this level of proficiency in these building blocks of our 21st century society.

But I have always thought that maths more than most subjects is something of a tall building, with the top floors reserved for the top mathematicians. The rest of us bale out at various floors, indicating the level at which we ceased to enjoy it, ceased to need it, or quite simply ceased to be able to do it at all. Mathematics firmly stratifies all-comers, at some stage, into those who can and those who can’t.

Points of exit are interesting. My own was GCE, which I passed with the help of a good memory and prayer, and in defiance of the head of maths: “You girls won’t know the answer to this – Peter Hughes, have you got it yet?”

I had tried to escape at the end of year 9: the head personally retrieved me from my cookery option, returning me to maths: “Without a GCE in maths, you cannot go to university, not even to study English!” Teacher Training College had no such restrictions.

As head of 6th form, I met students, confident with a GCSE A, finding that by Christmas of the lower 6th, they had reached their exit level of A level maths. “I can’t do it! I don’t even know what they’re talking about! And I thought I was good at maths!” 

Solution? Get out while you can still manage another subject, where hard work could make up a missed term.

The top floor of the maths superstructure is probably reserved for Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, but it seems as if the government wants everyone to do maths because it is a good thing to do, rather than because they are able to do it.

And they believe that better teachers will make it possible for everyone.

I don’t believe it. And, politically incorrect as it may be to say it, I do believe that some people can’t do maths beyond GCSE. Indeed, 40 per cent of the school-going population apparently cannot even do that. 

Saying we should be able to do it is like telling a short heavy-weight lifter that he should be a high jumper. Maybe he should – maybe it would be exhilarating, he’d earn a fortune and save the world. But some people can’t do high jump. And some people can’t do maths.

But some can: in 2014, the A* to C pass rate for additional maths at GCSE was a whacking 93.5 per cent, of which 53 per cent were A* or A grades.

Explanation? Maybe the only candidates who even entered this extra exam – fewer than 4,000, as opposed to more than 736,000 maths candidates – were the ones who could do maths.


Oh, and here’s a question: why do we not have enough 

A level scientists when the pass rates at GCSE suggest everyone can do science: the A* to C pass rates in biology, chemistry and physics respectively in 2014 were 90.3, 90.7 and 91.3 per cent.

Answers on a postcard please...

  • Hilary Moriarty is founding partner of the Education Practice at Greenings and was national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association until August 2014.


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