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Gove gets mathematical

29 June 2011

11:22 AM

29 June 2011

11:22 AM

Go go Gove, still trying to pack in the initiatives before summer recess. The focus
today is on maths and the sciences, where the Education Secretary feels our students are falling behind. In a speech earlier, he set out a number of measures to help ameliorate the situation,
including adding his name to City AM’s appeal for bankers to donate to the Further Maths Support
Programme charity. But, really, it was his more general remarks that caught the ear. He emphasised, for instance, the growing gap between us and the Asian nations:

"At school, British 15-year-olds’ maths skills are now more than two whole academic years behind 15-year-olds in China. In the last decade, we have plummeted down the international
league tables: from 4th to 16th place in science; and from 8th to 28th in maths. While other countries — particularly Asian nations — have raced ahead we have, in the words of the
OECD’s Director of Education, ‘stagnated.’

At undergraduate level, over half of degrees in China, Singapore and Japan are awarded in science and engineering subjects — compared to around a third in the UK, EU and US. The
number of science and engineering degrees awarded in China more than trebled between 1998 and 2006. By comparison, those awarded in the United Kingdom and the United States remained relatively
flat.

At postgraduate level, Asia now awards 1 in 4 of all engineering PhDs — almost as many as the EU and the USA combined. In the last 10 years for which we have figures, the number of
scientific and technical journal articles published by Chinese researchers has almost quadrupled. In the UK, the increase has been just 3%. This focus on STEM is more than just academic —
it translates into tangible, real-world innovations. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of patent applications by Chinese residents increased by over 1,000%. In the UK, it fell by a
quarter."

And he set a new "goal" for the study of mathematics:

"Only half the population has even basic maths skills, we are producing only about a quarter to a third of the number of pupils with the maths skills that our universities need, and
economic trends mean that this gap will, unless we change, get wider and wider with all that entails for our culture and economy.

That is why I think we should set a new goal for the education system so that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18."

Whether the government will — or can — achieve that, I have my doubts. But Gove’s emphasis on international competition is striking, just as it was in his speech last week. And so too is the timing of this speech. Today, we have an Education Secretary
explaining how he would improve our education system. Tomorrow, we have the unions closing down schools. The contrast almost looks designed.


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