Quantitative Skills Conference at the British Academy

I recently attended an excellent conference at the British Academy on Quantitative Skills, with a focus on international comparisons. The main question posed by the conference was, ‘How well trained are UK social science students in quantitative skills?’ The resounding answer was ‘Not very well’!

The conference examined some of the reasons for this, starting with secondary education. In a survey of 24 countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only countries in which fewer than 20% of upper secondary students study maths. Of these 20% who study maths at A-level, a large proportion go on to study STEM subjects at university. A much smaller proportion choose social science degrees and herein lies the first challenge to improving quantitative skills at undergraduate level – students come to university having done little or no maths since GCSE.  The Nuffield Report ‘Is the UK an outlier? An international comparison of secondary mathematics education’ is certainly worth a read, and it clearly shows that the way to raise the percentage of students who study maths post-16 is to make it compulsory, as it is in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea , Russia, Sweden and Taiwan. http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/uk-outlier-upper-secondary-maths-education

In his fascinating report on undergraduate quantitative methods training in the social sciences (excluding psychology and economics which historically have a much greater focus on statistics), Professor John MacInnes highlights some of the other challenges the UK faces.

  • Cost pressures and lack of skilled staff lead to inadequate teaching (MacInnes’s research found that only 10-15% of staff at UK institutions have the skills needed to teach an introductory statistics course!)
  • Teachers face hostility to numbers from students who had a negative experience of maths at school or haven’t studied any maths since GCSE and have never before encountered maths in an applied setting
  • Methodology and quantitative skills are divorced from the rest of the substantive curriculum and therefore seen as an optional extra
  • Students aren’t aware of the career advantage of having good quantitative skills


Though not a new problem, MacInnes is optimistic that change is possible now and through his role as the ESRC Strategic Advisor on Quantitative Methods Training is involved in numerous initiatives to improve quantitative skills teaching at UK universities, including the launch of a network of 20 universities selected by the ESRC, Hefce and the British Academy to run innovative projects aiming to develop skills using quantitative methods. Read the press release here!

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, gave the keynote address and agreed that raising quantitative skills was a battle worth fighting, not just for the sake of social science research, but for a more statistically literate society.  In a breakout session led by David Walker of the Guardian, who is the figurehead for the RSS initiative Getstats (http://www.getstats.org.uk/) which is campaigning to make Britain better with numbers , we brainstormed ideas for improving journalists’ statistical literacy. Newspapers regularly misreport research mistaking correlation for causation, comparing incomparable numbers and completely misunderstanding probability and risk, and this results in a misinformed public. However, the problem of statistically illiterate journalists is not easily solved. Journalists and bloggers come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and many will not have had any formal statistics training. Is the answer more short courses like the BBC and RSS’s science training for journalists programme? Does statistics need an engaging popular media spokesperson à la Brian Cox to educate the general public about why stats matter and train them to spot gross errors in what they read? Does the academic statistics community need to do much more to shame newspapers when they misreport their research? If PR offices at universities are responsible for pushing out press releases, what can be done to ensure this isn’t where errors are cropping up? A combination of all of the above (and much more) need addressing if we’re to make headway, and the challenge is knowing where to start when there is limited time and money to throw at the problem.

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