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Return to: Home > Comments > Comment: Philip Hammond, The Ashes, and statistics

Comment: Philip Hammond, The Ashes, and statistics

By ACCA UK regional head of policy for Europe and the Americas Nick Jeffrey


Many commentators attribute the UK’s low productivity ratings at least in part to deficiencies in training and education. Apprenticeships are one way that the government is seeking to make a lasting impression on the skills gap. ACCA has signed the Skills Partner Statement of Action as a founding partner with UK government.

Employers and government are coming together aiming to “boost social mobility and reduce inequality; deliver the skilled workforce the nation needs; and harness the benefits of ever-changing technology”. They will do this by working together on reforms to the apprenticeship and Technical Education system.

In another development here in the UK, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond announced in his budget that he would set aside £117m to finance improved maths teaching in English schools. It is a welcome and much needed contribution.

Maths is a great subject. It is only dull if it is taught badly. Think about all the everyday things we take for granted that rely on maths. Suspension bridges (how do they stay up?) Airplanes (how do they stay up?) The perfect Yorkshire Pudding mix (why do some go up and some go down?) Boats (why don’t they go down?) Input the phrase “golden ratio” into your preferred search engine - it is fascinating. It amazes me how many times it crops up for example in nature. Sure, it’s a ratio - but it’s not ½, its (1+ √5)2 – it’s so precise and yet seemingly such a random number.

To be fair, statistics was never my favourite branch of maths. Too much estimation and therefore open to interpretation where I favoured a precise answer, like when the Golden Ratio appeared. That said, I do like a good stat with the cricket commentary on @bbctms Test Match Special.

Every person who undertakes media training should be required to take my old maths teacher’s lecture on “The (mis)use of statistics in public life”. He used to pick a statistic that had made the news that week, and demonstrate how the same statistic could be used to support either side of an argument, or give a different impression if used in a different context. Even thirty years ago he couldn’t understand why public figures were not held to account for misleading the public (and, he used to say, the poor journalist interviewing them). Goodness knows what he would have made of the blatant mis-use of statistics by both sides in the UK referendum on membership of the European Union, although as I recall he held most politicians in healthy contempt.

There are many places around the world doing great things in the field of skills and vocational training. There are surely good ideas to share. And lessons to learn.

Of course there will be debates about whether Mr Hammond’s budget did enough for British schools, or the relative effectiveness of the Skills Partnership. But my maths teacher may well have raised a glass to Mr Hammond. Well bowled, he might have said, but that’s just one ball - now concentrate and win the match.

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