Here's an interesting interview conducted by Adam Shaw on Radio 4's Today programme this morning (18/11/2010) with Brian Butterworth, Emeritus professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Neuroscience at the University College London.
BB: "The UK is not very good at maths. We're about average, looking at all OECD countries. So, we're significantly worse than Australia and Canada, much worse than China and Japan, though we are a bit better than Germany and significantly better than the United States. And we know from a recent OECD report that, actually, maths ability in the population is correlated with GDP growth, so the better at maths the country is, the better their GDP growth is."
AS: "What you’re saying is quite important here. It's not just that as one gets richer you tend to have more time for a better education. You're saying, if you get better at maths, that’s a major driver of economic growth?"
BB: "That's exactly what the OECD report has found and …"
AS: "Maths more than any other subject? It's maths that does it?"
BB: "Maths is the major component. Science is the next major component, reading a little bit … but maths particularly is important. And it's not just raising the overall level that helps. Of course, if you raise the overall level it will help, but if you just get the lowest ten or eleven percent, which is the percentage of our population that fails to reach the OECD minimum standard at fifteen – really very simple stuff that people can’t do – if you can get people up to the minimum level, this would increase GDP growth by 0.44% per annum. Now it might not sound very much but actually, over the years, this creates an enormous improvement in GDP for the country."
Actually, I don't at all agree with the professor about reading being important only to a small degree. reading is an absolutely vital skill: if a person has poor reading skills, they are automatically excluded from a greater and greater number of jobs and can't contribute to the growth of the economy, given that jobs which require no reading skills are disappearing by the thousand every month.
Still, it's yet another wake-up call to the UK to improve standards of teaching in maths if the UK is going to compete successfully with other major economies – or, as Digby Jones put it, 'India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner!'