Clare Courtino: Why a new numeracy programme was the unsung hero of the Chancellor’s Budget

12 Nov

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

From Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, to Alan Turing’s computation theory, to the Indian mathematician’s Srinivasa Ramanujan’s work at Cambridge on infinite series, Britain has long been home to the cutting edge of mathematics.

Much of the modern world is quietly underpinned by mathematical discoveries. Imaginary numbers – those mind-bending multiples of the square root of minus one – were initially dismissed as useless and fictitious creations when they were first explored in the 16th century. Fast-forward 400 years and they have fuelled real world advances from radios to electrical engineering. In fact, from aerospace, to cryptocurrencies, to MRI scanners, countless modern industries are reliant on different branches of mathematics.

However, nothing has brought home just how critical numbers are to informing life and death policy decisions like the pandemic. The nation has spent the last 18 months poring over the best charts, logarithmic models and health data ratios that Twitter can provide.

Scientific modellers have enjoyed new-found celebrity and ignominy based on their ability to predict the future, and Whitehall has been awash with advisers and officials with competing interpretations of the latest data. And whilst most of the country may not be quite as enthusiastic as me, amongst the nation there is a rising awareness that we need to get better with numbers.

Over eight million adults in England have numeracy skills lower than those expected of a nine-year-old. The charity National Numeracy estimates that this costs individuals up to £1,600 a year in lost earnings. That’s one of the reasons why, in a previous life, I helped to create a National Numeracy Day. I wanted to encourage a culture where we find someone saying ‘I can’t do numbers’ as concerning as someone saying ‘I can’t read’, and where we put the tools in place to make sure all adults are at ease when dealing with numbers, so that more opportunities are open to them.

I was therefore delighted at last week’s Budget when the Chancellor announced a new Britain-wide numeracy programme, Multiply. Backed by over half a billion pounds, Multiply will mean hundreds of thousands more adults a year will be able to get a Level 2 Maths qualification, and all adults will be able to access a new online numeracy platform, with over half a million adults benefitting from free personal tutoring.

This wasn’t one of the most widely reported measures in the Budget, but it is hard to overstate its potential. The benefits of Multiply will be felt not just by individuals, but also by employers who have for decades worried about a shortage of basic skills in the adult workforce.

Although, it’s not just basic numeracy where we lag our competitors. We fall short when it comes to maths and data skills too. We know that many jobs of the future will require these abilities, yet Britain ranked just 24th in global data proficiency rankings in 2020. This may partly be explained by the fact that only 25 per cent of our 17-year-olds study maths compared to 80 per cent of their peers in Northern Europe.

There is also a levelling up element to all of this. The North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber have the highest proportion of adults with poor numeracy in England. And whilst in London more than a third of students who get a C and above in GCSE maths go on to study Level 3 maths, this falls to one in five in the North East. We know that maths is a powerful tool for social mobility as it is one of the highest value-add courses for future earnings, therefore this uneven spread of maths skills may be adding to regional inequality.

Snoop Dog may have been on to something when he said “if you stop at general math, you’re only going to make general math money.” We are putting energy and resources into making sure our regional economies are prepared for the skills needed in the future. We should make sure that maths and data are part of these plans.

One measure introduced by the Government that has been widely seen to be helpful is the advanced maths premium, which provides funds for each pupil studying maths and further maths at A-level. The recent £3,000 salary boost the Government has put in place for maths teachers in the first five years of their careers is also a welcome incentive to attract more teachers.

But I believe thenew post-16 qualification, Core Maths, spearheaded by Michael Gove as Education Secretary and aimed at real-world problem solving and everyday statistics, could be the game changer. At the risk of becoming the most unpopular politician in the country, it may be time to look at whether Core Maths, or maths, should be made compulsory for all pupils post-16 and whether UCAS can do more to recognise Core Maths in its point systems too.

So, whether I’ve swayed you with Snoop Dogg – or if I can tempt you with a last-minute reminder that Bill Gates “took a lot of math classes in college” – improving our numbers and maths skills should remain high on this Government’s agenda, as it will be key to this country and its people’s future success.

Chris Skidmore: For the UK to become a global science superpower, the Chancellor must set out a clear plan this week

26 Oct

Chris Skidmore MP was Science and Research Minister between 2018-2020 and co-author of Britannia Unchained.  

10 years ago, I was sat around a cramped room in Westminster with four members of the Cabinet – the current Foreign, Home, Business and Justice Secretaries. We had recently launched our first book, After the Coalition at Conservative Party Conference, which attempted to chart a course away from what seemed like endless compromise with our Liberal Democrat partners.

Now we were planning a second – not on domestic policy, but instead on how Britain risked missing out on the huge transformational changes on the international stage, if we did not begin to chart our own course as a nation that looked to Asia and other emerging economies for lessons on how to deliver future economic growth. Rather than accept a diminishing role for the UK, why not begin to invest in a strategy that could maintain our international influence?

So Britannia Unchained was born, as each of us decided upon a chapter we would write. I chose what seemed an obvious and essential narrative: the need for the UK to take science, R&D and innovation seriously. By 2011, government investment in science had basically flatlined, while our investment in research and development as a proportion of overall GDP had slipped backwards, to an embarrassing 1.6 per cent of our total national spend.

Meanwhile, other nations such as the US and China had bold plans to be reaching three per cent and above, spurred on in part to the emerging science and tech powerhouses of South Korea and Israel, who were spending around 4.5 per cent of their expenditure on investment in the technologies of the future.

As a result, both nations had transformed their economies from largely agrarian to high-tech within a few decades, bringing in international private investment while at the same time becoming global leaders in electronics, computers and communications. Establishing clusters of high-tech businesses where none had existed before, this investment in R&D resulted in an entire upskilling of their populations, making them some of the most educated in the world.

It shouldn’t be hard to see, I argued then, the importance of why investing in research and science effectively was the same as investing in your future success as a nation in a century dominated by technological change. We could be another Israel or South Korea too – but only if we took a long term and strategic vision of where we wanted the UK to be. We had some of the best universities and researchers in the world, particularly in the life sciences, but they were managing to achieve extraordinary results with little money.

That needed to change. Fast forward seven years, and as Science and Research Minister, I had the opportunity to make that investment, securing the Government’s manifesto commitment to raise its spending on R&D from £12 billion a year to £22 billion by 2025.

In turn, this had the potential to leverage in additional private research investments from international companies into the UK, thanks to the establishment of R&D tax credits, ideally to the tune of around £70 billion a year – allowing the UK to finally reach around 2.4 per cent of its GDP being spent on science and research by 2027, a target set back in 2017. Even with this investment, the UK would only sit in the middling league of the OECD average, watching as other nations continued to pull ahead.

The UK could still be another Israel or South Korea, if we set ourselves a strategy and stuck to it. But that most important commodity of all in politics, time itself, is slipping away. The Spending Review is Boris Johnson’s last chance to deliver a successful vision for increased investment in R&D. The money promised in 2019 has yet to materialise, and if there is not a clear plan from the Chancellor this week, then the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ would have been torn up by the Treasury.

And with but days until the UK takes the leadership of the international stage at COP26 in Glasgow, expectations are set that it will be investment in new renewable technologies, nuclear power and innovation in carbon emissions reductions that can deliver net zero by 2050. None of this can happen without the UK stepping up to make investments in research, which is desperately needed.

The alternative is that we slip not only further behind in the global race, watching as South Korea, Japan or China disappear over the horizon, we will start to go in the wrong direction: researchers and companies choosing to place their faith elsewhere, in countries that recognise the integral purpose of science to future economic growth.

2021 has demonstrated the incredible potential that science, research and development has not only to transform lives, but to save lives also: the UK has been rightly praised for its early investment in its vaccine programme, which was made possible thanks to our life sciences industry and high levels of existing R&D spend. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, we are standing on the shoulder of giants, of those generations before who made those strategic choices to invest in pharma in the UK.

What we cannot afford to do is to end 2021 by not continuing to place our faith in research and development, the investment for which must flow. As I wrote back in Britannia Unchained a decade ago, we can build a new future for the UK by recognising that future should be grounded in innovation and research. That future, and the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK as that science superpower, risks being lost this week if we do not act now.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.