Future of the UK: Why we need to teach our children maths and finance

16th August 2011

Carol Vorderman and others, think children should learn maths as it is vital for the future of the UK business sector. 

It is vital.

But forcing children to learn and focusing on how to force harder doesn't work.

Think about something full of maths.  Pensions.

Gordon Brown said pensions were complicated.  They are, but that isn't the problem. 

Incidentally, Gordon is the man who removed tax relief on pension funds when returns were good, so companies cut pensions so as not to "overfund" and be penalised, so funds couldn't cope with the downturn. 

But Gordon was Chancellor, and as a breed I wouldn't trust Chancellors to run a bath, far less an economy.  Obviously, pensions were too complicated for Gordon, but not everybody is a Chancellor. 

Children of six can use smart phones and programmable DVDs etc.  They are complicated but the children don't care, they use them anyway. 

The problem most people have with pensions (and maths) is not that they are complicated, we can all do complicated.

The problem is that they are boring. 

Actuaries (a breed reputed to have foregone accountancy as being too exciting) are often bored by pensions.  I studied pensions as part of my ACII qualifications, advised on them for years and was bored by them.

Some people like them, or maths, or IT protocols, or Greek verse.

Whatever you like, whatever you are interested in, you learn.  You don't feel like you're studying when you learn by heart your team's cup winning side, or learn to understand the function of the electronic ignition on your new motor bike.  You'd struggle to memorise Latin verse or understand the electronic circuits operating a power station unless you're interested in them.

If you don't inherently like the subject, you probably need a good reason to make the effort to learn.

You might not like pensions (I didn't) but if it is your job, you learn or change jobs.  If you want to use a smart phone and need to understand how to download apps, you learn how the various protocols to do so operate or you can't have the apps. 

If we want children to learn maths, sitting them down for two extra years and telling them – this is important, you must learn it – is not going to work.

Asking them what they want to buy, and showing them how they can buy it quicker by being able to work out the best rate of interest, (which involves concepts such as present value, APR, etc.) might.  So might showing them how their weekend job can produce a bigger profit to buy clothes (which involves costs, margins, percentages etc.).  Or understanding how roulette and the lottery work (which involves statistics, permutations and combinations etc.) and how to work out strategy.

Finding something they want to be able to do, and showing them how maths can help them do it means maths is useful not boring, and therefore something to be learned. 

But telling them, as I was told in my pure maths A-level – given the equation of the ellipse we calculate the equation of the circle bisected by a line between the foci, and from that calculate the volume of the sphere produced by rotating the circle – will produce, as it did from me and assuming they are still in the room and awake, the comment- but why would we want to Sir. 

If children want to learn things, they'll learn them.  The trick is to make sure the stuff they want to learn now is the stuff that is demonstrably useful to them long term – like maths.

Kim Stephenson is an occupational psychologist and trained financial adviser.

His website Taming the Pound is aimed at helping people get control of their thinking about money, so they can use their money – and avoid their money using them.

More from Kim on Mindful Money

Why a great leader doesn't always make for a great business.

Financial regulation: Why bother at all?

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