Is A-level Maths worth its weight in gold?

This is the conclusion of a four-part blog post in which I discuss issues associated with the decline in the uptake of A-level Maths by young people. In this final part, I will be continuing my argument as to why young people should not give up on Maths too easily and that we must do more to encourage more people to study Mathematics to at least A-level.

One may think, “What’s the point of the population being so numerate or having a high level of mathematical skills when the computer can do almost every calculation we need?” Well, I was told by my Maths professor at university that when bridges such as the Tacoma Narrow Bridge and the Humber Bridge were designed, there was the need to calculate matrices of 1000 x 1000. This is in contrast to the 3 x 3 or 4 x 4 matrices which students of A-level Maths and degree level have to work out manually. These bridges were made possible in their current form as there were computers at the time and they were able to use them to work out these hugely complicated matrix equations. But something we have to remember is that human input is required, not only in designing computer chips that solve these mathematical problems, but also in updating them and making them perform more complicated calculations, which we will certainly require in the future.

Contributions to great civilisations by Mathematics

If we look at every civilisation in the past, there have been brilliant mathematicians when any great advancement happened in those civilisations. Contributions have been made by Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Hindu-Arabic and Islamic mathematicians, and more recently in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The connection between mathematics and advancement in science is readily apparent – with overwhelming evidence that it is impossible for great strides to be made in scientific development without the contribution of mathematics. The vast majority of the highly sophisticated equipment in hospitals and all other aspects of life depend hugely on electronics, and electronics is all about electrons. Since the discovery of the electron in 1905 by J. J. Thompson, other physicists have made great strides. Physics is the most fundamental of the sciences as it probes as deep as you can get and it is the case that the very top physicists are selected from the most able of mathematicians. There have been huge advancements in aspects of biology, such as genetics, and this has only been possible by scientists with great mathematical knowledge being involved. Mathematicians are needed in all aspects of life, from science to economics, architecture and so on.

Mathematics provides competitive advantage

There is overwhelming evidence that we need more mathematical knowledge in order to have a competitive advantage in a very competitive world. Having more young people studying A-level Maths is at the very centre of that.

My conclusion on the rather vital issue is that parents, teachers and all parties involved in the education of young people should double their efforts in seeking out talent and nurturing them. We ought to do all we can to increase the number of young people who are studying Maths at A-level. This is the best way forward and everyone agrees with that. The only bone of contention is how we achieve that objective.

Opportunity brought by the new Maths Curricular

It is such as exciting time for Maths, both at GCSE and also at A-level, with both curricula currently undergoing changes – the GCSE this year and the A-level next year.

The new GCSE Maths curriculum provides an opportunity to explore and to nurture real talents and encourage those who are able to study the subject at the Advanced Level to really shine.

The biggest change to A-level Maths in 17 years is happening from September 9, 2017, with the first examination in the summer of 2019. The new Maths curriculum is such that young people will be required to study more diverse Maths content. It used to be the case that everyone studies Core Maths and they then, in addition, have the option to study at least one area of Applied Maths, such as Mechanics, Statistics or Decision Maths. With the new A-level Maths, everyone will need to study Core Maths and also both Mechanics and Statistics – a broader curriculum. Decision Maths has now been put into Further Maths and is no longer a part of the standard A-level Maths.

A-level Maths is rewarding in every way

I welcome the fact that society is recognising and rewarding people with mathematical ability and qualifications better than used to be the case. This is evident in various sets of statistics on graduate income, which consistently show higher than average income for Maths graduates.

It must be said that everything should not be just about the financial reward, as there are other aspects that bring satisfaction to people, such as the stimulation and enjoyment of the job one is doing. The beauty of a subject such as Maths and the ability to see the connection and relevance to various aspects of life must be recognised. More must be done to promote Maths and highlight the tremendous benefits the subject has historically brought and will continue to bring to the world. I’m confident there is no shortage of talent, the issues are: identifying those talented people; enthusing them to take up the subject; developing their talent to enable it to thrive; and recognising and rewarding them for their contributions.

It’s not going to be easy, but it is doable and it will be regrettable if we fail on this crucial matter. Given the importance of A-level Maths and the reward that goes with it – both to society as a whole and to the individuals themselves, it is a worthwhile goal to pursue in making the subject more appealing and to develop the talent of as many young people as possible in this vital subject.

Previous blogs in this series:

Part 1: Fewer young people taking A-level Maths – a tragedy or a blessing?

Part 2: The decoupling of AS from the full A-level means that it no longer counts towards A-level

Part 3: A-level Maths – should I or should I not – will my figures add up?