Once children were birched at school. Now they are taught maths

I used to long to be a child again. Not any more. British children seem under perpetual assault from the three horsemen of the apocalypse: obesity, social media and the manic gods of examination. Of these the most needless, and clearly dangerous, is the exam. The signs of stress are blatant. One in 10 schoolchildren now has a “clinically diagnosable mental illness”. Rates of teenage self-harm have risen dramatically in the last decade. Student suicide rates are soaring. Simon Jenkins, columnist, author and BBC broadcaster writes in The Guardian. 

A primary-school child of my acquaintance can handle counting and proportion, but he cannot access the world of complex numbers and algebra. In every way a lively, intelligent, creative boy, he is innumerate. For this harmless failing, he is accused of lowering his class score and his school league place. He dreads going to school.

This boy is a victim of the overpowering cult of maths, which modern education is as obsessed with as the ancients were with Latin. All the maths a normal grown-up needs can be read in John Allen Paulos’s admirable 135-page booklet, Innumeracy. Instead maths has been turned into a state religion, a national ritual, and for one reason alone: because proficiency in maths is easy to measure.

Whitehall officials would suffer agonies trying to measure creativity, imagination, life skills or self-esteem. But even a zombie can tell how many pupils can do an equation. Maths is now the most cited measure of performance. It is how we rank teachers, how we place schools in league tables, and how the UK fares in the world. It is as if schools were a vast ongoing Olympics medals feast.

An old cliche holds that no one knows the point of education, since we cannot see inside a child’s mind. But ask young people what they recall of their schooling and it is usually a remarkable teacher or a life-changing experience. It is not a league table performance. The current surge in holiday truancy is threatening parents with fines and worse. But who says going abroad does not enrich a child and a family, even if it inconveniences a school?

We now entrust the upbringing of the nation to a regime fixated with self-validation. Universities have spent years trying to calculate the worth of a degree or of academic research. The latest absurdity is to rank teachers by asking students to vote them “gold, silver or bronze”, and rank research by the number of citations from colleagues. Anything will do to cobble together a league table.

Britain is on its way to the purgatory of South Korea, where secondary-school children are made to cram for 14 hours a day to get into university, with suicidal consequences. It is like Athenian youths being trained for life by fighting each other to death. Current student mental health rates are appalling, so why make them worse when degree class is immaterial? The accountants Grant Thornton dropped their 2:1 entry requirement, and found graduates with poor degrees outperforming those with better ones. No one dared ask why. It might have called education’s bluff.

Read the full article Once children were birched at school. Now they are taught maths

Do you agree with Simon Jenkins?  Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Exams, Learning, Primary, Secondary, STEM and Uncategorized.


  1. Excellent article; it still amazes me that the most prolific educational thinkers are telling us we going the wrong way, the carports world is telling us what we churn out is not fit for purpose and still it goes on?!? Why? Politics. Our children suffer so MPs get another five years using education as a vote winner with no intention of doing right by future generations. Let teachers change the system from within-seems the only way

  2. wasateacher

    I’m sorry, but I do not think proficiency in Maths is easy to measure if by that you mean understanding of the concepts underlying Maths. Please do not confuse the ability to do calculations, etc based on learning facts with proficiency in Maths which should be defined as the ability to creatively think mathematically, not regurgitate what you have been taught. Unfortunately, proficiency in Maths is not so easy to fit to our narrow testing regime.

  3. Anonymous

    I really disagree with this article. I am maths lead in a school where all the children love maths: it is taught in a fun, creative, practical way and as a result, the children gain a deep understanding of the concept of number. There may be some results- driven, high-stakes head teachers out there who have squashed all creativity out of maths teaching, but the vast majority of maths teachers understand the importance of enjoyment being a critical part of the learning process. Simon Jenkins please come and visit my school, talk to our children, see the work in progress rather than proclaiming all teachers to be failing children based on your discussion with one child. Poor reporting.

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