John Pullinger, President of the Royal Statistical Society on why it is vital that our education system provides young people with the statistical skills our economy needs
The big political question today is where the UK’s future economic growth is going to come from. One area where we are well placed to thrive internationally is in managing the explosion of data. We have produced outstanding firms like Dunnhumby (who manage the Tesco Clubcard), and are a world leader in the market research industry. Across economic sectors, there will be big opportunities for firms – and countries – that are comfortable with big data.
The coalition government has really grasped the potential of data. They have been vigorous in releasing government data (the so-called ‘open data’ movement), and in promoting individuals’ access to data held by companies (for example through its midata project). The government is also making capital investments in ‘big data’ to help our economy better manage – and profit from – really large datasets.
The bottleneck we face is in skills. International research places us near the bottom of the league when it comes to quantitative skills in our schools and universities. We have fewer students doing any mathematics post-16 than in most of our competitor nations, just as research shows that the need for quantitative skills in both higher education and employment is increasing. Worryingly, employers and higher education institutions have serious concerns about the inability of school leavers to apply their numerical skills to real-life problems. Even those who gain a good grade at maths GCSE struggle to transfer that knowledge to other subjects or situations.
The government has been consulting on a revised National Curriculum. It is a golden opportunity to develop an education system that recognises and responds to these challenges. It is a chance to build vital skills for the next generation.
What we need is for statistics to be taught in context, for it to be about a creative, problem-solving mindset. Data in itself is meaningless without the statistical interpretation which tells us the real story; statistics is about learning to understand and interpret that data. A good basic grounding in statistics underpins numerical problem solving across a wide range of subjects and relates abstract numbers to interesting real life questions.
Unfortunately, the government seems to have a blind spot. Statistics is being squeezed out. The emphasis on teaching of mathematics is welcome but, without the rigour of statistics and statistical thinking, a vital link is missing. We could miss the chance to give all students the knowledge, skills and confidence to solve problems with numbers and to appreciate and interpret evidence.
In the current debate about the education the country needs, there is a mismatch. The future success of our economy depends on our ability to be comfortable with data and to use it to solve problems and make evidence based decisions. The government needs to match its commitments to open data and big data investments with a place in curriculum for the knowledge and skills that are necessary to exploit them. On curriculum reform it is not too late for the government to open its eyes and grasp the opportunity to prepare Britain to be a leader in the global data economy.