The key questions facing mathematics education


Ahead of a major international mathematics conference, David Martin sets out some key questions that must be tackled to ensure the subject remains relevant and engaging in the future.

Think about your normal daily life. Do you travel? Shop for food or clothes? Work? Use money? Have a mobile phone? Drive a car? Use a computer? Watch television? If so, you rely on a mathematician to continue your daily life. 

There is also the more exotic application of mathematics – putting a satellite in space, measuring and predicting climate or population change, building structures to provide clean water and so on.

So who are these magnificent mathematicians? One of them is you. You will need a wide range of problem-solving skills to get through your day:

  • Your child needs medication at 3am. The packet says to give two teaspoons to a child aged 12. If your child is eight, how much should he have?

  • You and eight friends go to dinner and need to divide the £92 bill. If you want to tip the waiter 10 per cent, how much does each person owe?

  • Is it better to take a £200,000 fixed-mortgage on a 30-year deal at five per cent interest, or 25 years at 5.5 per cent?

There are many reasons to study mathematics. Here are four:

  • It is an essential life-skill – imagine trying to save money on shopping for food with no idea of number.

  • It builds a better future – cleaner cars, water, more food, better technology.

  • It opens doors to many other disciplines which rely on an aspect of mathematics: engineering, statistician, psychologist, farmer, doctor, etc.

  • It has an intrinsic beauty and elegance of its own. Think how much music and art is now digitalised.

And yet so many pupils say it’s a hard subject to study, while many others find it easy – why the difference? And how can we convince children of the importance of the subject, their potential in it, and why it matters?

There are important implications for the study of mathematics at classroom level and our three-day Mathematics Matters conference is designed to move the debate forward in these areas. We will tackle vital questions and draw on global expertise:

  • What are the implications for policy and classroom practice when learning from the best internationally?

  • What are the implications for the secondary maths curriculum of ever-advancing technology? 

  • Should we still learn to do ourselves what computers can now do more efficiently? And how should our curriculum reflect these changes?

  • What are the implications of our accountability systems? This includes our exam system and inspection requirements – what are the benefits/constraints they bring to mathematics education?

  • If the deep study of maths is crucial to everyday life and subsequent employability then what skills and knowledge will our students need in the workplace 20 years from now? And what does this mean for teacher training in the future?

The conference will allow teachers to listen and learn from best practice internationally in a practical way – including many classroom ideas and tools to help improve attainment and achievement. As international education systems start to converge as a result of globalisation – come and debate what this means in your classroom.

  • David Martin is head of schools programmes at the British Council.

Mathematics Matters
Mathematics Matters being hosted by the British Council at the University of Warwick from December 11 to 13. The event will explore the current status of mathematics education and what will be required in the future, drawing on best practice from across the world. Keynote addresses include the OECD’s Dr Andreas Schleicher and education minister Elizabeth Truss. For details, go to 


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