Transforming Scotland into a maths positive nation: final report of the Making Maths Count group

Final report of the Making Maths Count group, which identifies three main areas to be improved.


Our research and engagement work sought to understand negative public perceptions of maths [1] and how these could be addressed. We used online questionnaires and focus groups to obtain an indicative snapshot of how the public view and use maths [2] . This included asking young people and adults "What does maths mean to you?" We received over 3,000 responses to our online questionnaire.

"We are all surrounded by things which rely on maths in one way or another. It is no exaggeration to say that maths is the language of modern life."

Emeritus Professor Adam McBride, University of Strathclyde

Both young people and adults used words such as "difficult" and "challenging". Young people's answers included 'boring' and "fun" in equal measure. In the adult responses, phrases such as "life skill" and "problem-solving" were prominent. The responses from adults often associated maths with work or everyday life but some suggested that their experiences at school had given them a negative attitude to maths.

Our research clearly highlights the factors that create negative public perceptions of maths. Maths is perceived as difficult and demanding. For some, this is linked to feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. Respondents used words such as "dread" or "fear of failure." Some said that maths gave them a sense of "panic" and others that they "hated" maths. As we observed in our interim report [3] , maths is seen as highly judgemental: answers are either right or they are wrong. This can give rise to a sense of failure if a person answers wrongly and a reluctance to engage further to protect their self-confidence.

We explored attitudes to maths further in our focus groups and received the following views:

Primary School pupils from P4 to P7

The majority of pupils made positive comments about maths. However, they would like maths to be more fun and involve more active learning. Despite their young age, pupils wanted to understand how maths will be useful for jobs and everyday life. They were also attuned to how their family members felt about maths, both positively and negatively. In some cases, pupils were able to give examples of difficulties that they had overcome with the help of a parent.

Secondary School pupils from S1 to S6

The young people in this group also wanted more to be done to explain why maths is useful for everyday life including specific aspects of maths such as algebra. Young people in this group tended to have narrower views that those in our other focus groups on the jobs which required maths. Their responses focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers and those in financial services.

Parents and Adult Learners

Most of the adults in our focus groups wished that they had known when they were younger how much they would need to use maths in their daily lives including managing money and for work. They suggested that it would be helpful to highlight the ways in which people already use maths probably without thinking about it and better than they might believe. This could help people to appreciate that they already have a skills- base in maths, remove some of the fear factor, and encourage them to further improve their skills. The adults in our focus groups also suggested promoting the message that being good at maths will bring you benefits whatever your interests in life.

These responses have helped us to identify both the challenges and opportunities in addressing negative public perceptions of maths. There are two main challenges. The first is to convince everyone, whatever their circumstances in life, that they have the ability to become proficient at maths. The second is to convince them of the benefits of doing so. The first challenge requires defining what we mean by proficient. This will vary at different stages in a person's life:

  • For children and young people, being proficient in maths means achieving the expected benchmarks for each of the curriculum levels of Curriculum for Excellence. Crucially, this includes developing the skills [4] of mathematical reasoning, resilience and understanding of key concepts. It will also mean progressing on to National Qualifications in mathematics.
  • For adults, it means acquiring and maintaining the skills necessary for them to realise their potential in life and work.

We are recommending that the Scottish Government works with partners to commission a sustainable culture change strategy for Making Maths Count. This should include further work on defining proficiency in maths.

The first challenge also involves confronting some deep-rooted cultural myths and assumptions, for example, the belief that some people are "naturally" or "innately" good at maths and others are not. The ideas from our respondents can help to confront these myths. Some of those who feel anxious about maths in a formal context, such as school or work, can be proficient in maths in other situations such as sports, shopping or cookery. Highlighting the different ways in which people already use maths can help to remove maths anxiety and encourage them to further improve their skills.

This approach can also help us with the second challenge - convincing people of the benefits of becoming proficient at maths. Our respondents emphasised the need to make maths more relevant to daily life and work. By doing so, we can demonstrate that being proficient at maths will bring benefits whatever people's interests in life.

We are already taking this approach in our communications work. We have engaged with individuals from across society who have positive stories to tell about maths and are promoting these via our blogs [5] . The blogs show how maths is essential to jobs as varied as creating computer games; jewellery making; managing a taxi business and zoo keeping; and leisure activities ranging from cookery to football. The blogs could be used as "conversation starters" with pupils, parents and the wider public about the benefits of maths.

As the case study below shows, we are bringing together schools and businesses to show how maths skills can be developed in new and enjoyable ways:

Our research, engagement and communications work has convinced us that creating a positive climate for maths in Scotland requires a long-term sustainable cultural change strategy. This leads to our first recommendation:

Case Study

Balloch and Ardersier Primary Schools in Highland created maths expressions for flags for the Scottish Open Pro-Am Golf tournament. The initiative was supported by Aberdeen Asset Management and gave pupils of all ages the opportunity to develop their maths skills in a fun way. The pupils used different aspects of maths ranging from addition and subtraction to fractions and powers to create expressions for the flags. The initiative showed them how maths is used in real-life contexts such as sport.

Recommendation 1

The Scottish Government should work with partners to commission a sustainable culture change strategy for Making Maths Count.

The strategy should:

  • create greater enthusiasm for maths as a vital life skill amongst children and young people, parents and carers and the wider public; and
  • promote the value of maths as an essential skill for every career and an economic imperative if Scotland is to compete internationally.

The strategy should be appropriately funded and have a strong focus on communications and improving public access to a range of maths information and resources including those for family learning.

We discussed a range of specific campaigns to promote maths taking place in the UK and overseas including Maths Week Ireland [6] .

Case Study

Maths Week Ireland was established in 2007 and is an all-Ireland celebration of maths. The event promotes the awareness, appreciation and understanding of maths through a wide range of events and activities including maths puzzles and challenges. Some of these take place in everyday locations such as shopping streets and centres. Over a quarter of a million people participated in the 2015 event.

We were impressed with the range of partners involved in Maths Week Ireland from education institutions to national and local government to the media. A strong feature of Maths Week Ireland is the long-term commitment made to developing the initiative. Although Scotland has successful science festivals, we believe the nation would benefit immensely from an event focused specifically on promoting maths. This leads to our second recommendation:

Recommendation 2

The Scottish Government should work with partners to develop jointly and fund a Maths Week Scotland which brings together events across the country with online and hands-on experiences for young people, their parents and carers and the wider public.

It is essential that there is a broad collaboration between the Scottish Government, local government, education, business and other sectors in commissioning a sustainable culture change strategy for Making Maths Count and developing a Maths Week Scotland.

Our research and engagement work has shown the influence that parents and carers have on their children's attitudes to maths. Even the youngest children were attuned to how their family members felt about maths both positively and negatively. In the responses to our online questionnaire, the most common reason that adult respondents provided for wishing to improve their maths skills was to be able to better help their children with their learning. In the best practice, nurseries [7] and schools work closely with parents and carers to support their children's learning. However, there is scope to do more and take a more strategic approach linked to the widespread desire to make maths more relevant to everyday life and work. This will create greater enthusiasm for maths and help to raise attainment and leads to our third recommendation:

Recommendation 3

Each local authority should develop and implement a strategy to ensure that all schools and nurseries engage with parents, employers and others in their local communities to help children and young people develop greater awareness of the importance of maths to everyday life and future jobs.

Education Scotland and local authorities should collaborate to share and disseminate good practice.


Email: Frank Creamer,

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