Thursday, 20 March 2014

Does our maths teaching add up?

According to recent reports, Wales is lagging behind in provision of maths skills for young people - fact! There are statistics galore to prove this and no shortage of government ministers queuing up to apportion blame.

But let’s stop before we jump on the band wagon and maybe try to deflect blame onto politicians or teachers or anyone else but ourselves.

There was an interesting comment made recently that negative remarks made about maths by parents in front of their children was partially to blame. I watched a feature on this on the BBC and the father in question had his children sitting behind him whilst chatting to the interviewer. The children were playing on a huge touchscreen computer and appeared to be not very focused or engaged on whatever it was they were doing. The body language strongly suggested to me aimless filling in of time and it did not appear to be giving the children much pleasure either.

I just wonder if that readiness to abandon the child to the mercies of a screen is symptomatic of the attitude that abounds. By making negative remarks about maths in front of children, adults are reinforcing stereotypical images which can and clearly do stop a child from putting in enough effort. If the responsible adult gives in to the majority view, presumably whilst able to see the value of maths skills, what a glorious opportunity to motivate the child is lost.

I know from my own experience of learning maths what a challenge is involved and I fully recognise the size of the task. But equally I also know, and this is backed up from my experience in the world of business, that taking responsibility is what makes all the difference. Parents must not only refrain from running down the study of maths – they probably need to do a refresher course themselves before throwing themselves into the job of motivating their children to learn.

There have been examples of parents learning signing skills to communicate with a deaf child and I have heard of some spreading that skill around the NHS to benefit others. Granted, this is an extreme example but to me it illustrates what single-minded determination can achieve.

A child can still communicate with his or her friends if deficient in maths but what about holding down a job in the quicksand of today’s viciously competitive world? A parent or a business leader has a fabulous opportunity to foster skills irrespective of whether they excel themselves. Don’t waste that chance – take control and do the job!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Whither the future for Europe?

With the visit of Angela Merkel to Downing Street recently, this is perhaps a good time to talk about seismic world events. With the anniversaries of two World Wars to consider and the 25 year milestone achieved since the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, there is no shortage of prompts.

But actually the political upheaval I wanted to focus on is the one which is happening in the Ukraine.

I was prompted to think about this for a whole variety of reasons. Firstly, there was the jarring juxtaposition of humour and tragedy which I saw in the newspaper reports from Russia and Ukraine at the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics. On one side we read an article about the humorous end to the games which deliberately feigned a technical fault to mirror the real one at the opening ceremony. And then right next door to it we see a feature about the carnage, despair and hopelessness of the deteriorating situation in the Ukraine. Secondly I was drawn to this subject because I myself once visited Kiev. It was back in the 60’s when the Ukraine was a part of the USSR and we were accompanied everywhere by our Intourist guide, Masha. But even as a schoolboy, which I was then, I was struck by the warmth and approachability of the local people. Finally, my attention is always drawn to this part of the world as I studied Russian at University and have been lucky enough to visit since as a businessman.

Involved as I am these days in international trade with a variety of businesses, it seemed to me a good time to reflect on the economic tragedy underpinning the political warring. Uncertainty is the enemy of economic growth and we are all involved whether we like it or not. Of course it concerns us greatly in the UK because of the potential EU enlargement angle but really it is a major event which will shape the global distribution of power.

The former proud breadbasket for the Soviet Union is today on her knees economically. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Ukraine and Poland both had a GDP of $80 billion. Poland today is nearing $600 billion while Ukraine struggles to reach $200 billion. At the mercy of foreign aid from whichever source, it is very hard to imagine things getting better, if indeed further crises and bankruptcy can be staved off.

But, in my view, this is not the time or place for academic discussion on painful contrasting economic fortunes. Perhaps we should simply be reflecting and doing what we can to ensure that our government’s response to this crisis is appropriate. When we come to discuss the question of “in or out” votes for Europe, maybe some consideration of Ukraine’s plight might just help us to focus better on our own problems and issues.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Comparison is odious...

The RSPB has more members than all the three major political parties combined.

That was the earth-shattering statistic used in a debate recently by a senior Conservative peer in the House of Lords. I presume his aim was to shock his party members. This is the extent of the job they have on their hands if they are to engage properly with all 63 million of us.

As attention grabbers go, this was a really good one as far as I could evaluate. This is probably because the statistic is surprising in itself and probably also because it creates a striking and unexpected picture which sticks in the memory.

I know the remark wasn’t meant to be pored over at length and analysed from different angles but nevertheless it might be worth doing precisely that.

What makes the comparison so striking? Why shouldn’t the RSPB membership exceed that of all the major political parties? Being generous to the politician in question, let’s say it was an accident that the organisation chosen to contrast with the party membership was the RSPB and any organisation would have served the same purpose.

In this case, the comparison has inadvertently brought about other consequences – namely to suggest subtly that membership of the RSPB is a light-hearted and inconsequential thing. A comparison with membership of the CBI, for instance, probably wouldn’t have had anything like the impact. No, on reflection it seems the contrast between heavy and light was what really did the trick.

I’m not suggesting either, by the way, that this politician thus risked alienating the one million strong membership of the RSPB. What he revealed to me was perhaps the gulf between himself and the people he is trying to communicate with.

By suggesting that one group of people is in some way less relevant than another I feel he may have encapsulated the modern political dilemma. Young people, for instance, often do not engage with politicians of any stripe. Perhaps they feel pigeon-holed, undervalued or simply misunderstood. 

In business, it seems to me, similar rules apply. Any statement that makes a judgement is dangerous, especially in a global and interconnected market where many of us operate. By revealing, however obliquely, that we care more about “I” than “we”, we run the risk of disengaging the very audience we need to engage.

Modern society, like today’s business arena, is a hugely complex place and of course that variety is what makes it so interesting and valuable. In some respects the pace of change is phenomenal but in many areas of life or work the fundamental values have not changed one iota.

As another famous politician once said, say what you mean and mean what you say!