Maths Education and The Master of the Universe: A Modest Proposal

Estimates of Britain’s numeracy skills gap vary. According to the Leitch report About 8-11 million adults are supposed to be lacking in functional numeracy. That means about a fifth of the adult population can hardly read a railway timetable or count their change. There are different estimates but it’s a lot of people, and government has made it the centrepiece of the skills agenda.

Much of this poor performance is down to poor teaching in primary schools which is difficult to recover in secondary. I know because at the age of 11 having come from a failing primary school with some of the worst teachers ever employed, I fell well behind in maths. When I reached secondary I was placed in the remedial section for maths after a few weeks of struggling in the mainstream section. As it happens once the teachers knew I wasn’t a maths numpty and that I had just fallen behind I got some great individual tuition and made progress. There is a scheme now being trialled in the East End of London with city support which shows the real value of that one to one tuition.

The scheme gives those children lucky enough to access it, a year’s progress in just 20 hours of tuition. It’s not cheap it cost £2,600 per pupil but is incredibly effective. Maths is the gateway to so many of the skills we need as an advanced nation. The long tail of underachievement threatens our very survival as a competitive economy so in economic terms of the social good would be considerable .The Government has matched the funding of £5 million from city companies like Goldman Sachs, KPMG and Barclays. But it isn’t nearly enough to make a dent in the problem. If even a tenth of the 8 million adults with poor numeracy got the tuition at age seven it would cost over £2 billion annually. However it would make a massive difference.


Here then is a modest proposal. Why don’t government and the city agree with the FSA to an offset scheme amounting to an additional tax of 50% for bonuses. This which would pay for accelerated maths tuition across the country. In tax terminology it would be "hypothecated" to a purpose popular with the public and business.

Let’s do the maths. Bonuses for this year are expected to top £4 billion. On my estimates half of that would pay for a tenth of the schooling population to have the bespoke tuition and add considerably to our skills base. Most informed observers including the hyper-numerate individuals who work there, know that city performance is more the product of luck than judgement. Most current bonuses are also down to windfall profits caused by the absence of competition ,and most surviving firms are propped up by taxpayer trillions. These over rewarded individuals could rescue their reputation and make a big difference to numeracy social exclusion, and our future supply of skills. Bonus winners could also keep all of their normal after tax bonus (instead of just over a half) on one condition. They could opt to be trained as fast maths tutors and deliver double the training (40 hours tuition). That way their precious time/earnings preferences could be accommodated, and they would be giving something back they shouldn’t have taken in the first place.


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