National Numeracy Day: the Maths of Life

This week (on 17th May) was National Numeracy Day – a day designed to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children in the UK, and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills. The day aims to challenge negative attitudes towards maths and numbers, influence public policy and offer practical ways to help adults and children improve their numeracy.

We share the vision of the National Numeracy Trust. We also want to enable all our students to be confident and competent with using numbers and data, so they can make good decisions in their daily lives. Our strong Maths curriculum is testament to this, as is the fact that Maths is currently the most popular subject in our Sixth Form.

Understanding numbers and data is more important now than ever. The advent of ChatGPT this year, and the announcement that Google will be using AI within its search function, has highlighted the fact that we are entering a new era of partnership between humans and computers. Machine learning and artificial intelligence, driven by algorithms and the analysis of stupendously large datasets, will be an ever-increasing feature of all our lives over the coming years. The children we are teaching now will grow up in that world: we need to teach them to be ready.

Data is a massive part of all our lives, and it moves quickly. I can remember, when I started teaching in 1997, that we got the first computer in our English Department, and we used it to collect the exam results in a spreadsheet. It was an absolute revelation that we were able to show which students had done well in specific questions at the click of a mouse, and work out which bits of the curriculum to revise with them. Such analysis is now taken completely for granted, and it is layered with masses of additional information to enable us to make informed decisions about our work.

And this is not, of course, unique to education: every industry relies on data to help make sensible decisions, whatever the inputs and outputs – from healthcare to finance, engineering to retail, entertainment to research. Understanding that data, spotting and interpreting the patterns within it, and being able to manipulate it to reach informed conclusions, is an essential employability skill for a whole range of occupations.

Dr Hannah Fry shows why spotting patterns in data is essential for car racing, space exploration, government and more

But, at Churchill, we don’t see maths as purely utilitarian. We strongly believe that maths should be enjoyable for its own sake – for its elegance, its complexity and simplicity, for the stories that it can tell about our world, and for its quirky fun. I remember, for example, Mr Gale telling me about Belphegor’s Prime – a bizarre palindromic prime number which is a 1, followed by thirteen zeroes, followed by 666, followed by another thirteen zeroes and a final 1: 1000000000000066600000000000001. This number reads the same forwards as backwards; it is only divisible by itself and one; it contains 31 digits (which is 13 backwards). No wonder, with all these traditionally bad luck numbers layered into it, that the number was named after Belphegor, one of the seven princes of Hell, who is known primarily for tempting mortals with the gift of discovery and invention! What I find even stranger that 1000000000000077700000000000001 is also a prime number…

I have always been grateful to my maths education – even as an English Language and Literature graduate. It taught me to look for patterns, to analyse and try to understand the deeper structure of the thing that I was looking at – whether a poem, a play, a novel or, in my teaching career, a dataset, a budget or a behaviour or attendance record. This is what we aim for in our maths curriculum at Churchill – and, looking at our thriving sixth form uptake, it looks like it’s paying off.

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