An Interview with Mike Ellicock: Modern Day Maths

May 24, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, what is your exact title, and what organization are you working for?

Chief Executive, National Numeracy, which is a new, independent charity, unique in its commitment to transforming attitudes and achievement in numeracy across the age range in the United Kingdom. In particular, it focuses on those with low levels of numeracy.

2) Now what exactly are you trying to accomplish?

We want every person in the UK to reach a level of numeracy that allows them to meet their full potential. We believe that this is possible but that it will require sustained and coordinated effort from teachers, organisations, government and learners themselves. We believe that attitudes are crucial and aim to transform public attitudes so that poor maths ability is not seen as a badge of honour. It believes that it is essential that the importance of good numeracy – and the possibility of it being achieved – is recognised. We also want to see a measurable transformation in maths at school and numeracy for adults.

3) I have been to England several times- but for our readers- what exactly is OFSTED and who currently heads it up?

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. It is the organization that inspects schools and colleges here in England – responsibility for education is devolved to the other countries in the UK so they have their own equivalent organisations.

4) How much maths do you think the average citizen needs in London- for example to get around the tube, the pub, the local grocery market?

I guess almost exactly the same as the average citizen anywhere in the US – which is a lot but so much of it is hidden. Just listen to the news on the radio, or watch on TV and you’ll see that you need to be numerate just to make sense of it. Here is an example of what we mean from a the news on a single day over here: .

You need to be numerate to check whether your pay slip is right, to check your change, to understand timetables, interpret graphs, charts or meters, calculate the best deals in a shop, manage your finances, help your children with their homework – and those are just the basic things. Almost every successful business today has maths right at its core – think of the algorithms behind google or facebook or the programming inside an iPad… or even an independent builder ordering the right quantities of materials, interpreting architects drawings, managing finances and so on…

5) How do we go about convincing these young students of the need to study and master math and problem solving?

Quite a lot of what I think about this is here:

Maths seems to be fairly unique in teaching the tools before teaching what they might be used for – I think it would be more logical the other way round. There is lots of potential now to teach conceptually easy and really interesting areas of maths early, which previously have been taught late because they are computationally hard.

So, I think that we can make maths a lot more interesting and grounded in the real world – but also help students understand that just thinking mathematically is a vital life skill and one that you need to survive and ideally thrive in the modern world – even if you can’t see the point of what you are doing right in that instant!

6) Maths requires a certain amount of patience and frustration tolerance- something the current generation seems to lack- your thoughts?

Maths is absolutely about overcoming obstacles – I think that the computer game analogy is a good one; no one would expect to be able to complete a computer game first time. I recognise what you are saying, but I have confidence in students today; anything worthwhile takes patience and frustration – including computer games but also think about sports and most other subjects as well – and most students understand that. What seems to be unique about maths is people’s willingness to say ‘I can’t do maths’ – as though it is a can do / can’t do thing – more here: .

The reality is that if students open their minds to the possibility that they could do maths and persevere then – with support – they will be able to achieve something that is going to help them all the time in their daily lives.

7) I must say, you are not alone in your difficulty- there seems to be a shortage of math and science teachers here in the U.S. also. Is the government doing anything to address this?

Yes, there are measures in place to try to get more students taking maths beyond the compulsory cut off at 16 – England has the lowest % of 17 and 18 year olds studying maths in the OECD (c.15%) and also to attract ‘quant’ graduates into teaching. Of course teaching maths effectively is a combination of maths subject knowledge and pedagogy so it is important to get more new teachers into the profession with really solid subject understanding but it is even more important to work with current teachers to improve both their subject knowledge and pedagogy.

Unfortunately, I am not at all sure that current teachers are sufficiently supported through effective professional development and this is an area that I’d like to see a lot more emphasis on.

8) I know that there will be a report soon, or perhaps it has already been released. What does it say and can one get a copy on line?

The report is out tomorrow (Tuesday).

Here is the Ofsted homepage: and I guess that the report will be up there early tomorrow a.m. our time.

I attach our embargoed press release regarding what we think it is saying!

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Pretty comprehensive I think.

The logo and link to our website is –


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