The Independent View: Time for Lib Dems to seize educational reform agenda

Labour’s mantra in 1997 was “education, education, education”, but national exam results show that England is still some way off in providing good universal education.

Most concerning is the lack of grip on mastering the basics – as Lib Dem Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families David Laws has commented, too many students “are still failing to get to grips with the essential subjects of maths and English”. Only 46.7% of students achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths last year, and half of employers said they were dissatisfied with the basic numeracy of school leavers.

While the Labour Government remains stubbornly optimistic about the standards in schools, this is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to seize the initiative and put forward hard-hitting policy recommendations.

It is the subject of mathematics which forms the basis of liberal think-tank Reform‘s latest report, “The value of mathematics”. The study argues that a “tightening Gordian knot of political control” has turned a generation off maths, damaging the UK’s maths attainment and threatening the future of the UK economy. This lost generation has cost the British economy £9 billion. Could the Liberal Democrats be the “new Alexander” that is required to cut the Gordian knot of political control?

David Laws has already given positive signs to suggest the latter:

This Government has managed to undermine the credibility of the exam system while failing to deliver for the majority of students. We need a new educational standards authority and a genuine devolution of the power to innovate to all schools” (18 October 2007).

Indeed, the Reform report argues that rigour should be restored to maths education by complete independence of the examination system and a reversal of the trend towards modularisation.

A massive extension of government-involvement in the subject since the 1980s has had the unintended consequence of demotivation of teachers, less enjoyment on the part of students and the distancing of employers and universities from education policy. 440,000 ‘lost mathematicians’ have opted not to do A-level maths since 1990. The result is problems of attainment in universities and of recruitment in the wider economy. Some City firms have reported that they now recruit the great majority of maths recruits from overseas. Maths in the UK has become a Cinderella subject, widely perceived as geeky, difficult and boring.

Exams have become less stretching partly because of efforts to make them more ‘relevant’ to the modern workplace. But ironically, it is the core techniques of logical thinking and problem solving that are especially valuable. The modern economy is a ‘maths economy’ in which mathematical skills drive value in industries from energy to financial services. The new ‘Masters of the Universe’ in the City are no longer traders; they are the ‘power mathematicians’ who model future trends.

The Liberal Democrats should seize the opportunity to push forward radical reforms that they have already been advocating – such as a new educational authority and decentralisation of schools – in order to end the three key causes of the problem:
1. a lack of leadership from the discipline,
2. misguided interference from successive governments and, most importantly,
3. a basic lack of understanding in modern culture of the value of mathematics.

This is vital if the UK economy is to succeed in the battle of the maths economy. Only by doing this can it remain a key player in the global economy.

* Laura Kounine is Reform’s Education Researcher and Elizabeth Truss is Reform’s Deputy Director.

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • C at GCSE isn’t easy for evertone.

    The reality is that some people will never achieve it because they are simply not capable, some will not achive before 16.

    Lots of children are too far behind through poor parenting/no parenting that they drown in a natinal ciriculum with teachers spouting shakespeare to pupils who can’t properly read or write.

    Before GCSE’s we had O levels a-c and CSE grades 1&2 – this was far better for most pupils.

  • Time for Reform to catch up with the LibDems, more like.

    How much change can be reasonable accomodated before the system gets lost in agendas?

    I think we all recognise the education system needs to be primarily about educating, but it doesn’t always seem that way.

    Some clarity amid all the confusion is necessary to navigate through all the agendas being pushed by different interest groups, so the main thing worth standing up for is the promotion of the highest standards.

    I’m appalled by the way the certification system has been completely debased by so many successive reformist agendas, I’m doubly appalled by the way the curriculum has been subjected to a succession of partisan interests and I’m triply appalled by the way our children’s futures have been influenced on the whim of political fortune by successive parties of government.

    We need a winning education policy which enables every person the chance of success by providing every opportunity humanly possible.

    Too many opportunities are wasted and lost by the demoralising effects of substandard education.

  • passing tory 4th Jun '08 - 8:18pm

    Mouse: “C at GCSE isn’t easy for evertone [sic]. The reality is that some people will never achieve it because they are simply not capable”.

    Yes, but the group that are physiologically not able to get a C is extremely small. The majority of people who fail to reach grade C do so because they fall for other reasons, not because they are intrinsically incapable.

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