Rishi Sunak wants everyone to study Maths to 18 – does that add up to a good plan? Why not go even further?

28 April 2023

Mark Fawcett, LinkedIn

The Prime Minister has announced his intention to make it compulsory for students in England to study mathematics until the age of 18. He has said that higher maths attainment will grow the economy and create better paid jobs and opportunities. But what are the benefits, the challenges, and the potential solutions in achieving this?

 First, why do this? What are the benefits?

 In a more data-driven digital world, improving numeracy can clearly benefit each person individually. It opens up more work opportunities and lessens the risk of being left behind. There was even a very similar pledge in the Labour 2015 manifesto so this is not a new idea.

 Many other countries like Germany, Japan, France and the USA take some form of maths-to-18 approach. And the PM argues that it will benefit the whole nation through an improved economy.

 We know it’s good for the person and good for the economy – so what’s the problem? I’ve spent my life working with young people in various guises, particularly in relation to their academic experiences, personal development and transition from education to career, so this issue really struck a chord with me and I was naturally keen to dig a bit deeper. 

 What are the challenges here?

 Well, there are quite a few actually. Let’s just explore a few of them:

 1.     Defining the route

 The PM described needing to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. This is key – it’s not about everyone taking A-Level Maths. He said “we’ll need to make sure this maths is additional to other subjects – not instead of them. But we are taking the first step today by identifying the maths content that will give our 16-to-18-year olds the skills they need to get on in life.”

So, they’ll need to be looking at a range of routes including core maths qualifications, T-Levels, embedding numeracy in other subjects and hopefully more innovative technology-based options.

Continued exposure to skills-based or life-based maths could be in the form of personal finance as opposed to pure maths. Which will mean, our kids can also know how to get a mortgage, or a business loan. Or avoid bad debt. Maths that is relevant to be real life will be far more engaging for those students who ‘don’t do maths’.

Those implementing this will need to explore both qualification and non-examined methods to build numeracy. Then more young people can develop the advanced maths skills to drive their careers, and others can build the most basic skills to better get by.

 2.    Teachers

 Currently about one in eight maths lessons (12%) are taught by someone without a maths degree and almost half of all secondary schools are having to use non-specialist teachers for maths. The Government has failed to meet its own recruitment targets for trainee maths teachers every year for more than a decade, despite the target being cut.

 And even if we step up recruitment, almost 1-in-6 teachers in England leave the profession after just one year.

 If younger students have below-par maths teaching, with a strong focus on exam passing, then it alienates rather than engages millions of them. Which brings me onto …

 3.    Pre-16 maths performance

 National results for maths GCSE are generally not good, and the compulsory resits are also pretty woeful, so surely it makes far more sense to invest in maths education before Key Stage 4 rather than after it? Or at least have the maths-to-18 strategy include earlier age maths as well.

 The Government’s figures show that about 60% of disadvantaged pupils do not have basic maths skills at age 16. Around 175,000 young people fail their GCSE maths each year. So, would it make more sense to get the foundations right, before putting a new building on top? And possibly a better use of education investment too.

So, what are the solutions?

Clearly, we need the professionals in place to do the work, however the approach is tackled. Whether that is in classroom-based group maths teaching, 1-2-1 tutoring or a focus on financial literacy. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work, but you can’t do anything without the teachers. And given the current picture of education strikes, I’ll mark that thorny issue as ‘unsolved’ and suggest three things to consider:

1.     Explore digital badging for numeracy skills. Allow 16+ students to pick up a range of maths skills and demonstrate their competence. Not just through A-Levels and other traditional routes but by picking up badges in ‘Personal Debt’, ‘Business Budgeting’ and ‘Data Management’ along the way. All supported through a mix of direct teaching and online learning.

2.    Embed numeracy skills and learning in all subjects. Every subject has within in the chance for pupils to learn maths – these opportunities just need to be clearly drawn out by teachers who have been shown how. Contextualize the learning in real-life situations.

3.    Get the foundations right with a connected approach across all age groups. Don’t just bolt a 16-18 strategy on the top and expect it to work.

What can we learn from others?

 Learn from, but don’t copy Singapore. They lead the world in maths education with strategies that include mastery of fewer topics rather than racing through a packed curriculum, visualisation using real life objects, games and problem-solving all delivered through a layered curriculum that builds skills gradually over time. Students learn maths till 18, but they build on a strong foundation for success. It’s not a short-term win.

 The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last year announced $1.1bn in Maths education in the United States. They state that: “One of the most powerful levers for young people to … take charge of their own futures is success in math. Math equips students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be engaged citizens and to attain high-paying, in-demand jobs.” At the heart of this is developments in maths teaching systems, protocols, materials and teacher training at all levels and ages.

 And the bigger picture?

 If you accept (please!) that the solution comes from improvements at all ages, then why not be brave and bold enough to say that now is the time that our entire education approach in England needs review and reform. An out-dated curriculum has had decades of additional initiatives and areas of focus bolted on and is no longer fit-for-purpose for our young people, our future work needs and our economy.

 Let’s look at those needs over the next 50 years and build a new education approach that meets our needs. As the PM said himself: “We have to fundamentally change our education system so it gives our young people the knowledge and skills they need – and that our businesses need – to compete with the best in the world.” Let’s do it; do it all and do it properly. Not just maths.


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