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4 January

Kids need better numeracy, but maths until 18 isn’t the answer

Two years’ extra arithmetic doesn’t make up for 12 years of bad teaching.

By John Oxley

Rishi Sunak is putting maths at the heart of the effort to make his time in office count. Under proposals announced today (4 January), he wants to extend compulsory maths education to those aged 16-18, effectively ensuring no one drops maths before university. But it’s unclear if the scheme adds up.

Extending maths education to 18 isn’t an absurd plan. It is the norm in most European countries, where the baccalaureate exams have a compulsory mathematical element of varying difficulties, depending on aptitude and specialisation. Equally, Sunak is right that many modern career require data literacy built on a solid grasp of mathematics, and around 8 million adults in Britain indeed have the numeracy skills we expect of primary school children. What’s unclear is whether an extra two years of arithmetic is the answer.

If children are failing to learn maths adequately, it’s because of problems lower down the school system. Those who struggle with maths as adults have already had a dozen or so years of teaching; it’s unclear what two more will do. In any case, those who have failed to attain a grade C at GCSE are usually required to repeat maths until they do if they stay in education.

Outside of remedial classes, it’s unclear what the policy promises. The majority of those who drop maths for A-level will have a GCSE that shows acceptable attainment in the core subject of maths. It’s unclear how carrying the subject on will benefit them and what the syllabus would be. There is no sense in forcing them into advanced maths concepts, when without substantive content more time would just be a drag on the timetable. 

The proposals would also create issues for schools. As Sunak knows, maths opens the door to many highly paid careers – but that makes it harder and harder to recruit qualified maths teachers. The Department for Education has missed targets for hiring maths teachers in each of the last four years, while pay attrition and conditions have affected retention. Schools would have to find staff and funding from somewhere to add in these extra lessons.

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Schools are hardly flush with resources, nor is mathematics the only problem. Children and teachers are still recovering from the school time missed during Covid, the impact of which is still not fully known. At the same time, poor attainment in maths is only marginally worse than other core subjects – around one in six adults has the literacy level expected of an 11-year-old. Poor English skills arguably have just as much impact on general education and life chances as poor maths does.

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There is nothing wrong with wanting to drive up educational standards. Mathematics is an essential life skill and there’s rarely harm in knowing it better. The question is whether an extra two years of it can add much value compared with the rest of schooling, and whether, with schools already feeling stretched, there is an effective way of delivering it. Based on today’s proposals, Sunak needs to do more homework. 

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak survive the wrath of the right?]

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