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4 January 2023

Rishi Sunak’s maths to 18 plan doesn’t add up

The policy doesn’t reflect voters’ priorities and there aren’t enough teachers to deliver it.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister will deliver a speech today (4 January) outlining plans for all children to study maths until the age of 18.

This will be Rishi Sunak’s first major speech as Prime Minister. His premiership so far has been preoccupied with soothing the markets following last autumn’s mini-Budget and fixing the small-boats crisis in the Channel. This is the first time he will have tried to set out what his government actually wants to achieve beyond managing crises. Education has always been close to Sunak’s political heart (remember education spending was increased in November’s Budget despite widespread cuts elsewhere). But the political advantages of the policy are minimal.

First, the policy doesn’t reflect voters’ priorities. When Blair incanted “education, education, education” during his first term, around 30-40 per cent of voters placed the issue atop their list of priorities. Now the figure is around 10 per cent. A quick scan down Ipsos Mori’s list of priorities for voters shows education comes in at joint tenth. And it’s even less important for Conservative supporters.

Second, the Conservatives have struggled to tell a story about education reform. Whether you agree with them or not, the renovations under Michael Gove and Nick Gibb are something the Conservatives could point to when asked what they’ve achieved since entering office in 2010. But the argument is rarely made. Part of the problem, as Gibb recently told the Times Education Supplement, is most Tory MPs don’t actually know what the reforms were.

Third, there aren’t enough teachers to deliver the policy. The government missed its target for recruitment of new secondary school teachers by 41 per cent last year – the ninth time that’s happened in the past ten years.

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Fourth, Sunak is expected to admit the proposals won’t be implemented before the next general election. Not exactly a policy to meet the crisis of our times.

The Prime Minister may point to the economic benefit of investing in the numerical skills of the future workers of the country. That could link the policy to the priorities of voters. But it would contradict Sunak’s previous statements on the relationship between education and growth.

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Sunak argued in his Mais lecture last February – the seminal outline of his economic policy – that the government should focus on skills not secondary education. “When four in five of our 2030 workforce are already in work, the additional contribution education can make to productivity and growth is through adult skills,” he said. In his own words, secondary education isn’t the priority for economic growth. By the end of the day, then, Sunak’s key problem – the absence of a core mission he can sell to the public – won’t have gone away.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t get away with neglecting childcare]

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