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Rishi Sunak and the creation of the maths culture war

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Rishi Sunak and the creation of the maths culture war
Mark Thorpe

In a speech on Monday 17th April, Rishi Sunak made the following statement:

I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it’s OK to be bad at maths to put our children at a disadvantage. My campaign to transform our national approach to maths is not some “nice to have”. It’s about changing how we value maths in this country.

My first reaction was “here we go again, more culture wars”. My second was to try to fathom out who the legions of counter-cultural anti-maths-ers actually were.

Having spent a long time in education myself, and having a son nearing his mid-twenties, as well as numerous teacher friends, I’m really struggling to imagine who is part of this anti-maths culture club. I’ve never met anyone who fits the bill. Ever. Yes, I’ve met many people who struggle with maths, some who really struggle, but I’ve met far more who struggle with English. In fact, my plea to Rishi would be to save the English language, which is, I fear in a perilous state of decline.

So, who are the motley crew who have brought maths to its knees? Please Rishi, I’m sure we’d all like to know. The reality is that an anti-maths culture has never existed. What does exist are poorly funded and resourced state schools that can’t give their students the support that maths requires, particularly if you come from a disadvantaged background. In these schools, other subjects are also the victims of neglect. They should all be taught better and for longer.

Take a look at the private school system and achievement in maths is noticeable. When our schools are resourced properly, we are a nation of brilliant mathematicians. And brilliant scientists. And brilliant artists. And brilliant social scientists. Actors. Musicians. Entrepreneurs. Etc. We are a nation with a gift for creating or destroying brilliance, in any subject. To this extent, we are what and where we choose to be.

There is no war against maths. All that exists is a rampant social and educational inequality. Culture wars create ideal screens, as well as the opportunity to become the hero, riding to the rescue. Dear Rishi, your narrative is unhelpful, a gross misrepresentation and fundamentally flawed. And remember, the language we use makes us what we are. Believe in mathematical culture wars at your peril.

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