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Young people still face a worrying gap between school maths and real-life maths

Thursday 20 October 2016

Young people still face a worrying gap between school maths and real-life maths, says charity as it unveils new approach to hooking 16-25 year-olds into maths through the medium of gaming.

School maths is leaving too many young people unprepared for the workplace and for running their lives, according to the education charity, National Numeracy. The charity is calling for changes that ensure all teenagers learn to apply maths in practical contexts and see the relevance of it to their lives. National Numeracy says there is now a compelling body of evidence to support new approaches to school and college maths. It cites:

  • The mismatch between the two-thirds of young people who pass GCSE maths at A*-C and the less than one-quarter who demonstrate practical maths skills at the same level;
  • Findings from a 2016 YouGov opinion poll showing nearly half (47%) of 18-24 year-olds who took GCSE (or equivalent) maths felt it did not prepare them for managing their money and over a third (36%) of those who work felt it did not prepare them for their current job.
  • OECD data showing England as one of very few countries where on average young people do no better at maths than the over-55s.
  • The low pass rate (fewer than one in five) among 17-year-olds obliged to re-take maths GCSE.

In its recent submission to the House of Commons education committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education, National Numeracy argued that while GCSE maths prepared young people reasonably well for advanced maths, it failed to equip many of them for life and work in the broadest sense. Although maths has become the most popular A-level subject, there is no evidence of a significant shift among those at the other end of the achievement range – the young people who struggle with GCSE, who display poor functional numeracy and lack mathematical confidence.

The charity believes that the government’s current review of functional skills presents real opportunities – if handled well – to improve maths post-16, but believes that functional maths also needs bringing into school pre-16.

National Numeracy makes its demands for changes to school maths as it launches its own novel approach to hooking in young adults who lack confidence in maths, showing them how maths pervades the real world and helping them to improve their skills. It has produced a free new mobile app – Star Dash Studios – a runner game based in a virtual film set.

Players find themselves on their first day as a runner with a challenging to-do list, and as they run through the various departments, they meet more experienced members of the crew, each with jobs that need their help involving numeracy. The action is fast and furious, the problems are highly visual and engaging, and the whole experience is served up with a large dollop of humour.

Although first and foremost a game (aimed at 16-25 year-olds) and not a formal education resource, the app encourages players to think mathematically and use everyday numeracy to tackle embedded number problems (relating to time, money, percentages, measurements, angles and estimation) – and so move up to the next level, an essential feature of gaming.

It also offers the option of linking to the online National Numeracy Challenge, which lets people assess and improve their numeracy skills. National Numeracy believes that its approach – ‘maths by stealth’ in a gaming app for young adults – is unique.

Star Dash Studios draws on academic work showing a correlation between gaming and mathematical behaviour and is based on National Numeracy’s own ‘Essentials of Numeracy’ model. It is the result of a collaboration between the charity’s maths education specialists and award-winning games developers Plug-In Media, in consultation with young job-seekers, apprentices and further education students. Voice-over is by comedian and writer Chris Kendall.

National Numeracy chief executive Mike Ellicock said: “All the evidence shows that too many teenagers feel disengaged from school maths and don’t see its relevance to their future lives. We urgently need to crack this problem – and that means a better thought through approach to functional maths, in order to build young people’s confidence, interest and practical skills.

“It’s against this background that we have developed our new app. This is the perfect medium for persuading young people that numeracy is part of every job – whether that’s on a film set, in an office or on a building site.

“What’s more, the resilience everyone needs to improve at everyday maths is akin to the resilience demanded by gaming. Persistence pays in both. Try again – and you go up a level.”

The new app is backed by TV presenter and mathematician Rachel Riley. She said: “Gaming is a great way to get kids thinking mathematically - without labouring the point. And Star Dash Studios brings in maths in an exciting context - it’s the maths that you really might encounter working on a film set.

“If this app can build young people’s confidence and start to make them realise that maths is something they have to do in everyday life, and something they can do, then that’s a great achievement.”

Star Dash Studios can be downloaded for free from Google Play, Amazon and App Store from October 20. Its development has been funded through a grant from the Ufi Trust and it will be exhibited at the Skills Show at the NEC in Birmingham next month.