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The need for better statistics in our schools and colleges

A major overhaul of the teaching of statistics and a change in policy makers’ appreciation of statistics is essential if advantage is to be taken of the increasing economic importance of data-driven technologies concludes a report for The Royal Statistical Society and The Actuarial Profession.

The report by education specialist, Roger Porkess, focuses on the ways statistics is taught and learnt in schools and colleges in England, with some evidence drawn from Wales and Northern Ireland.

The aim of the report, and the underlying research, is to provide an evidence base for the further development of the statistics provision in our schools and colleges.

Much teaching of statistics takes place within the mathematics part of the curriculum, but it also is highly relevant to other subject areas. The report finds that:

  • There is a lack of co-ordination between the statistics in the mathematics curriculum and that needed in other subjects
  • The importance of statistics as a practical subject is not recognised in the formal assessment system for mathematics at any level
  • At almost all levels students do not engage in the full range of activities involved in using statistics to solve problems

The report concludes that all students should be equipped with a working knowledge of basic statistics, including the necessary associated mathematical competence, and an appreciation of how it impacts on their daily lives.  Some of the report’s eighteen recommendations are:

  • Policy makers need to appreciate that the need for statistics is not going to go away; instead it will increase as ever more data become available. They need to acknowledge the central role that statistics plays in the current and future economy, and its importance for decision making.
  • The new National Curriculum should ensure not only that students meet a suitable statistics curriculum at all ages up to 16 but also that it prepares them for a future in which many of them will be using statistics in a wide variety of contexts throughout the rest of their lives.
  • New courses for post-16 students will require careful design.  Their statistics content must be up-to-date and relevant to the future lives of the target students, whether in higher education or employment.
  • To ensure that sufficient account is taken of the importance of statistics, and of its special requirements, it should be represented separately from mathematics, but alongside it, when policy decisions are being made.
  • The assessment techniques used should ensure that, at every level, students carry out work covering all the processes required to use statistics to solve problems and make decisions.
  • The statistics content within mathematics, up to GCSE, should include some topics that are either not currently covered or are only treated lightly.

Royal Statistical Society President, Professor Valerie Isham, says:

“The results of the research carried out by Roger Porkess clearly highlight the issues and problems which hamper the relevant provision of sound statistical knowledge. They clearly support the argument that statistics cannot be ignored in either mathematics, or in a wide range of other taught subjects where problem definition, data collection, analysis and interpretation skills are essential to strengthen subject-specific knowledge.

“The recommendations flowing from this research are highly relevant not only for education policy development, but for policy development in other areas such as the labour market, industry and science. The Society will strongly pursue the recommendations and promote their relevance to all policy makers to ensure statistics is recognised as an essential discipline in all facets of the education landscape.”

Jane Curtis, President of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, adds:

“From working out the best deals in the supermarket to understanding trends and probabilities that affect decisions in business and politics, people’s ability to interpret data and their sources has never been more important. A good grounding in the application and use of statistics in schools is essential to everyday life and future education. That is why the Actuarial Profession is delighted to be sponsoring this timely and relevant report.”

A copy of the report can be found here.

For more information, contact Michael Scanlan on 020 7632 1453 or michael.scanlan@actuaries.org.uk

Notes to editors

Roger Porkess

Until his retirement in September 2010, Roger Porkess was Chief Executive of Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI), an independent curriculum development body.

Roger’s first degree was in mathematics; subsequently he took M.Sc. and M.Ed. degrees and, in 2010, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Bath.  He worked as a teacher for some 25 years, mostly in 11-18 schools in the UK but also in Zambia, Ghana and Malaysia.

In 1990 he left teaching to work for MEI. He had recently chaired the MEI committee that had developed the first modular A Level syllabus in any subject, and now took on the responsibility for its implementation. During Roger’s time at MEI, the staff expanded from one (himself) to over 20 people and they have been responsible for many of the most successful innovations in mathematics education in the UK, including the Further Mathematics Support Programme.

Roger is the author or editor of a very large number of mathematics and statistics textbooks (as well as children’s plays). He has written many articles and reports on issues relating to mathematics education, and was lead author of Carol Vorderman’s recent report, A world-class mathematics education for all our young people. He is a very experienced A Level examiner and sets many of the MEI comprehension papers.

Roger is a member of the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education (ACME) and had a leading role in their recent Mathematical Needs report.

About the Royal Statistical Society

The Royal Statistical Society is a learned society for statistics and a professional body for statisticians. It was founded in 1834 as the Statistical Society of London (LSS) and became the RSS (Royal Statistical Society) by Royal Charter in 1887. In 1993 the RSS merged with the Institute of Statisticians. Today the society has more than 7000 members around the world, of whom some 1500 are professionally qualified with the status of Chartered Statistician.

The Society is active in a wide range of activities, reflecting the diversity within the discipline of statistics, and it is one of the world’s leading statistical societies. The RSS focuses strongly on statistical education in its broadest sense, as stated in its Royal Charter, and offers a range of educational qualifications and continuing professional development opportunities for statisticians.

In 2010 the Society launched the getstats campaign. With support from the Nuffield Foundation, the campaign aims to increase statistical literacy and wants to raise the profile of statistics and its increasing relevance in today’s data-rich society.

About the Actuarial Profession

The Actuarial Profession represents and regulates the members of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, the chartered professional body for actuaries in the UK.

Actuaries’ training is founded on mathematical and statistical techniques used in insurance, pension fund management and investment and then builds the management skills associated with the application of these techniques.

Actuaries work in insurance, pensions, healthcare, investment and banking as well as in the management of risk, and so are directly involved in the provision of different sorts of financial products across a range of market segments.

As part of the Profession’s commitment to supporting education, it sponsors the annual UK Maths Trust Maths Challenges in which 250,000 pupils from schools and colleges take part and the annual Enterprising Maths Challenge in Scotland which attracts 60,000 participants.