My article for ConservativeHome
All students receiving their A-Level results tomorrow deserve huge credit. It’s been another disrupted and difficult year for pupils.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that maths is set to be the most popular subject choice, just as it has been for the last few years. According to the interim figures from Ofqual, over 90,000 pupils will receive A-Level results in maths this week. (It’s a long way back to second place in the list of subjects – 68,000 sat psychology while biology takes bronze with 63,000 candidates).
This is good news for maths. But it brings with it certain issues. With so many school pupils sitting maths we must ensure that the pipeline in further and higher education is big enough to accommodate them. There are worrying signs of kinks in that pipeline.
Earlier this year Leicester University took the decision to close the pure maths group in its mathematics department. That prompted the founding, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Its dual aims are to promote maths in general and to protect pure maths in particular, because that area of the subject seems most under threat at the moment.
Dr Nira Chamberlain, president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), is a vocal supporter of the campaign. He recently said, “To those who think we can have a better society by reducing pure mathematical activity, I say this: ‘All of mathematics is important, you cannot target one without hurting the other!’ When mathematics is strong the UK economy becomes stronger.”
That goes to the nub of the issue. The mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy, that’s around 10 per cent of GDP. We need maths and mathematicians as we rebuild the economy.
But sometimes it can be tricky to see what pure maths in particular contributes. By its very nature pure maths is concerned with pursuing mathematical ideas for their own sake.
And yet without it our lives today would be very different. For example, the encryption that secures the contents of your mobile phone and which facilitated all those contactless transactions during the pandemic relies on principles from pure maths.
We don’t just carry pure maths in our pockets. It’s pure maths that underpins the safe and successful functioning of GPS satellites in space mapping the globe. Pure maths keeps us safe.
Alan Turing was studying a knotty problem in mathematical logic back in the 1930s. It appeared to have limited real world application. Yet when it came to cracking the Enigma code that pure maths work proved vital. And of course Turing’s work would ultimately hatch modern computers.
Today, government security and surveillance hub GCHQ is one of the nation’s largest employers of pure mathematicians. The Heilbronn Institute – a partnership between GCHQ and universities put out a statement on ‘the value of pure mathematics in security’ which boiled down to this line: “Pure mathematics is crucial in designing and analysing modern security protocols.”
Pure maths helps keep us well. For example, by making MRI scanners more efficient it has surely saved the lives of many patients. Maths in all its forms has been crucial to our response to Covid-19. From the graphs that we became accustomed to seeing at Downing Street briefings to modelling the spread of the disease, and more happily, the development and rollout of vaccines – a process in which this country and this government has led the world.
We can lead the world in maths too if we recognise the value of maths in all its forms and ensure maths departments remain not just viable but healthy.
Students acing A-Level maths today shouldn’t have to travel far from home if they don’t want to. There’s a danger that if some institutions make injudicious cuts then pure maths will become the preserve of certain universities while others will specialise in applied mathematics. Better to have maths departments where all strands of the subject can interact, infuse and enthuse each other spread throughout the country.
This government knows the value of maths. We’ve announced £300 million in additional funding for the subject. The details around that commitment should be forthcoming in the autumn. I hope it will be used to fund all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years. That is the way to maintain our mathematical pipeline of excellence.
By doing so we give today’s pupils celebrating their success at maths A-Level the best opportunity to develop their knowledge and love of the subject. And we give the nation the best chance of reaping the rewards of that excellence in terms of the economy, opportunity and in finding the answers to questions we have even thought to ask yet and in being ready to face challenges currently unknown.