Is The 'Nicky Morgan Defence' Acceptable? Politicians And Maths

22nd February 2018

Quick question: Do you expect your UK politicians – the people who run the country - to know their times tables? Or any basic primary level maths for that matter? You think you’d be entitled to, but it turns out when it comes to politics and the media the answer is that apparently, it is not really necessary. Let’s look at some noticeable examples.

Recently the new Education Secretary Mr Nick Gibb gave an interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about plans to introduce a new compulsory time tables test for all eight to nine year old pupils. This is despite mounting opposition from parents and teachers who protest that children are already under a huge amount of pressure.

This is amid a time when young people’s stress levels and mental health are under greater scrutiny, so the proposals have divided opinion. However, it was Nick Gibb’s reluctance to answer one particular question live on television which generated an explosion of further headlines. Mr Gibb was asked what eight times nine was by presenter Jeremy Kyle and he refused to answer, saying “I am not going to get into this. I have learnt through bitter experience never to answer these kind of questions on live television. I am very tempted to but I am not going to.”

In response Jeremy Kyle immediately angrily raises his hands in disbelief saying, “Eight times nine is a times table I’m not asking how you change the world!” while Kate Garraway responded somewhat indignantly “Hang on though, that’s an interesting point. You don’t want to get into it because you’re worried you’ll get it wrong… Yet look at you, a very successful person, who clearly can add up and do maths, so why is it so important for an eight-year-old to do it when clearly you feel vulnerable about it and there you are, a government minister?”

“No eight-year-old or nine-year-old would be doing it on live television” Mr Gibb laughs nervously as Garraway cuts him off saying “That’s pressure though, in the context of their world, that’s pressure!”

Kyle then chimes in again, saying “What’s eight times nine Nick, come on, it’s not difficult! Mr Gibb defends himself saying “Again, I’m not going to, I do know the answers to these questions but I’m not going to do so on live television.”

The question here is pretty straightforward, it is likely that Mr Gibb does indeed know the answer and even if he didn’t he could have worked it out in the time he had, but someone has clearly warned him never to answer such questions on live television!

Mr Gibb is not the only one to have decided that answering such maths questions on-air is not worth the risk.

The Sun newspaper claims that Westminster ‘sources’ have admitted that they actually advise MPs not to answer maths questions on television saying "It's not a formal ban - but we would always advise ministers not to answer questions like that. It might be OK when it's just times tables, but it gets trickier when they start having to answer questions about astrophysics!"

If this is true, then politicians have embraced this advice to the extreme, avoiding simple times tables questions in a desperate attempt to save face in case they do actually get the answer wrong and look foolish in front of the nation.

This has, shockingly, actually come to be known informally as the ‘Nicky Morgan defence’! In January 2016 Ms Morgan was being interviewed about plans to test 11 year olds on their times tables and was asked if she had been practising hers all weekend as she “probably know(s)what’s coming” to which she promptly replied "I did. I'm not going to be answering any maths questions… Because at the end of the day I know what it’s like with these interviews, I’ll be doing lots of interviews this morning and there will be one where I get it wrong and that’s the one everyone will be focusing on. I’ve had all this from some young audiences…".

She may have been referring to an incident in 2014 when she was quizzed by a school child on the school news network ‘First News’ hot-seat program, when little Leon asked her the cube root of 125.

She declines, saying “I think it’s better that politicians don’t do maths or spelling on-air.” to which the adult presenter suggests she has been talking to her colleagues in the cabinet, producing a hearty laugh from Miss Morgan.

She actually refuses twice, despite precocious Leon saying, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to press you on that question, do you know what the answer is?” to which she repeats that it wouldn’t be wise to answer on-air.

To be fair, she has a point, if she gets every question right every time, then she gets no credit and nothing much comes of it, but if she makes one mistake then the press and the public will be all over it – and will be unlikely to let her forget it either. But one could also argue there should be no possibility of a well-educated government minister getting such a basic maths question wrong.

Presenter Susanna Reid responded by saying "Do you not think there is an irony that the education secretary won't answer questions about the times tables but requires every primary school child to know them?" which is a fair question despite the fact that with the low numeracy levels in the UK many voters would risk getting the questions wrong too.

Doesn’t the presenter’s response sound familiar? Who does your sympathy lie with in such a situation?

Later that day the then Prime Minister David Cameron was similarly quizzed during a visit to a school and also refused to answer, actually jokingly saying he was going to "plead the Nicky Morgan defence".

Some would consider this just another symptom of the UK’s crippling attitude towards innumeracy, that intelligent, successful, educated adults are happy to avoid doing very simple maths when put on the spot, and they’re even happy to make jokes about it. The First News presenter actually says “Well, we’ll let you off as half the office couldn’t answer it either.”

What kind of message does that send to young people? We expect you to do well and reach a certain mathematical standard, but we don’t have to know how to ourselves, and furthermore that doesn’t really matter? We understand that politicians are in a unique position, but while we can sympathise with their fear of embarrassing themselves, we think that, like others in the public eye, they have a responsibility to make the effort and show the public that they can answer simple questions that we expect our children to master with ease.

They have a particular responsibility as well, in that they are actually the people driving these ambitious educational reforms, and coming across so spinelessly in the media will only undermine these efforts. But what do you think? Do you think the “Nicky Morgan defence” is disgraceful or really not that important in the scheme of things? Let us know in the comments!