Monday, August 08, 2011

Vorderman on maths – reactionary TV presenter, no maths degree, debt & property scammer advises us on maths!

We’ve had an endless stream of ‘I’m a celebrity, let me fix your schools’ types this year; Jamie Oliver, Toby Young, Joanna Lumley, and now, god help us, Carol Vorderman. (Interesting to note that this Conservative supporter wouldn't be allowed to teach maths, as Gove doesn't want teachers with anything less than a 2.2 - she has a third.)

Vorderman – a few unsavoury facts

Just a few words about Vorderman: a) She doesn’t have a maths degree, she has a third class degree in Engineering, b) She acted as a spokesperson for the rogue debt consolidation company First Plus, forced to cut the contract after criticism from the debt charity Credit Action c) She fronted a property company that collapsed leaving many with unfinished properties abroad which they had paid for, d) Sacked from Channel 4 after being seen as a money-grabbing lightweight on £1 million a year, e) After a disastrous appearance on question time, where she spouted extreme right-wing views, Dimbleby said in the Times, It lasted an hour, this felt like more to me.” f) she also has a long history of being partisan on educational politics and attacking the Labour Party.

So let’s imagine the following conversation at Tory Party headquarters, who commissioned the report when they were in opposition; “Suggestions to sort out maths in schools? How about Carol Vorderman? Does he have a maths degree? Well no, and we’ll have to hide that fact that she’s encouraged dodgy debt management, fronted a failed property scam and spouts reactionary nonsense whenever possible. But, she does have one redeeming feature. What’s that? She’s ‘rear of the year’. Call her.”

To be fair, apart from Carol, the team is academically sound, and has made some interesting observations and recommendations.


They conclude, that the maths curriculum is a catastrophic, irrelevant mess, geared towards higher advanced maths at the expense of functional maths. I couldn’t agree more. Teaching 14 year olds how to use the quadratic formula and surds is just plain stupid. Roger Schank often asks his academic audiences whether any of them can remember the quadratic formula, and he rarely, if ever, gets a correct answer. Why worry then that, “Only 15% of students take mathematics, in some form, beyond GCSE” as the current GCSE is hopelessly geared towards high-level, irrelevant, abstract maths. I think 15% is reasonable, if not a little high. And if “Nearly half of all students ‘fail’ GCSE Mathematics, why worry, as it’s a flawed, overly-academic and partly irrelevant qualification.

The GCSE curriculum is loaded with esoteric algebra, trigonometry, geometry and number theory that 99% of learners will never, ever use in their entire working lives. Note that this is at the expense of functional maths in two senses, 1) it squeezes practical maths out of the curriculum, 2) it is a massive demotivator, reinforcing the idea among millions of children that ‘they can’t do maths’.

The suggestion that we have a mainstream Maths GCSE that focuses on functional numeracy is therefore wise. This is what I had at school in Scotland many moons ago. I did an O-level in Arithmetic (practical) and another in Maths (theoretical). Makes sense, although I’d reframe Arithmetic as ‘Practical Maths’. Employers aren’t complaining that people don’t have ‘maths’ skills, they’re complaining because they don’t have basic ‘functional numeracy’.


At one end of the spectrum the team are spot on – primary school teaching. The teaching of maths at this level is woeful; mostly because the vast majority of teachers have very low numeracy skills, and partly because of poor teaching methods. In the same way that whole word teaching had a catastrophic impact on literacy; ill-informed, half-baked, non-integrated and inconsistent approaches to numeracy teaching have also been catastrophic. There is the recommendation that the teaching be rooted in the real world, through practical tasks – something that’s been recommended for decades but been studiously ignored in schools.

Almost all primary teachers stopped maths at 16

The recommendation of a minimum B pass in GCSE in maths before you’re allowed to teach the subject sounds like a bad joke until you realise that our children are being taught by largely innumerate primary school teachers. It claims that, “Almost all of those on primary PGCE courses gave up studying mathematics at age 16. So, by the time they taught their first classes, they had not studied mathematics to any meaningful level for at least six years.” Only about 2% of primary school teachers have a degree in science or any STEM subject.

Most maths not taught by maths teachers!

Another shocker is the fact that in secondary schools, “24% of all children in secondary schools are not taught by specialist mathematics teachers”. Read that again. Most maths is not taught by maths teachers! However, the team have fallen into the trap of seeing the solution to bad schooling as yet more schooling. Forcing young people to study maths until they are 18 is just plain lunacy. If you haven’t got basic, functional numeracy into your head after 11 consecutive years of maths, another two years isn’t going to matter and the idea of ‘maths citizenship’ is just weird.


The report points out 1) the people teaching maths are by and large amateurs, 2) the curriculum is too esoteric, 3) we need two separate maths qualifications. I agree with all of these findings but we’re chasing moonbeams here. First, the educational establishment is so wedded to dated PGCE recruitment and curriculum practices that it is almost impossible to reform without radical restructuring. You have to get teacher training out of the Universities where it reinforces the old academic model and change the methods of recruitment. Secondly, you have to break the back of the gold standard, A-level mindset, where University entrance is the primary goal of all schooling and everything else is classed as failure. It ain’t going to happen.

Download full report here.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the idea of functional maths for all sounds ideal. At Brighton Business School we get many bright young people who look terrified when we ask them to engage with numbers. Your examples of the overly theoretical curriculum help to remind me why.


John Sexton said...

You noted your Arithmetic O grade from Scotland. Have you had a look at the new curriculum in Scotland? In the new curriculum north of the border numeracy (practical) forms a subset of the maths curriculum and numeracy is now seen as a responsibility of all teachers in schools. There is a major focus on (practical) numeracy in all areas and it will be an assessed and credited subject in 2013. Like you I tohave my Arithmetic O grade and this "new" approach does sound fimiliar to those of a similar vintage. However the big "change" is the cross-curricula approach (to show students the relevance of the subject). For further info go to

Henry Stewart said...

Completely agree, Don, that the proposals do make sense. Never understood why employers asked for GCSE maths - did they need to calculate angles of triangles a lot in their jobs?

But perhaps the reason Vorderman has come up with reasonably sensible ideas is just because she wasn't very academic. Put a professor in charge and they'd probably have concluded the current system worked, because university students needed those skills.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Henry
There's some pretty good academics in the team and others consulted, so I doubt that Vorderman had much to contribute - if you saw her performance on Question Time, you'd see that she's not strong on reasoned analysis.. Some good ideas in here (nothing really new) but some howlers as well. It's inconsistent and contradictory - very much a 'committee' job.

Donald Clark said...

John - have lost touch with Scotland as I left 28 years ago but am giving a talk at e-assessment conference in Dundee on 26th August. Ideas sound interesting. Any shift on the 'useless' sixth year?

John Sexton said...

Sixth year now more important than what you probably remember. Can still be a bit of a waste of time for the more academic student especially as they start to get uncoditional offers for uni. However with our Higher Still courses/levels sixth year now used by many students & teachers for further progression up the academic ladder. Our new curriculum is "planned" to support the whole school experience (ages 3-18) for all students to give students access to more opportunity.
An add on to my earlier comment: our maths exams/courses in year 11are being split into two seperate areas. In plain terms it looks as if their will be a "life skills" maths and a "pure" maths exams / course. Exciting or frightening time for us teachers as these courses are still under development by "high heid yins" but I think if they get it right at least here in Scotland our students should be able to do percentages (I'll not hold my breath)

Steve Smith said...

I must confess that I believe maths occupies too important a place in the curriculum, rather as Latin used to. Few people seem to question this, one well-known exception being Simon Jenkins.

Donald Clark said...

Steve - Totally agree. Roger Schank and I have been saying this for over 20 years.

Grahame Smart said...

Both the maths curriculum and maths teaching in England need a massive overhaul. As a maths teacher myself I feel that despite the fact out students meet targets/levels they are woefully unprepared for the real world. I actually agree with Carol about the fact that a grade C in maths means very little.

The real problem in my experience is that the people teaching the subject in the main do not have the mathematical, creative or technological skills to present the content in an imaginative and inspiring way. So even if you change the curriculum radically (which I would) thats only half the battle.