4 January 2023

Does Rishi’s maths plan add up?


The second best way to provoke a reaction at a party is to let on that you’re a maths teacher. People always want to tell you about their own experience of studying the subject and, unlike English, generally aren’t embarrassed to admit to being bad at it.

I taught secondary maths in state schools for 15 years and loved pretty much every minute of it. Obviously I’m biased, but few things beat the satisfaction of solving a maths problem, or spotting a pattern in a real-life situation that you can then make predictions from.

That said, I appreciate that not everyone feels the same way. And the reaction to this morning’s headlines – about a proposal to have all youngsters study maths to 18 – has certainly confirmed that people’s views of the subject are as varied and visceral as ever.

However, I think the idea of having all students continue to study maths until they’re 18 is a great idea, and not just because of my personal experience. It’s actually one of those ideas that works for students and wider society. And I predict that once it happens we’ll look back and wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. Why do I say this?

First of all, a big part of maths-to-18 would just be catching up with how education has already changed over the last few decades. These days young people have to be in ‘education or training’ to 18, and England is an outlier in not making maths compulsory through to this point. Many OECD countries already require at least some maths to be studied all the way through to school-leaving age.

Secondly, around half of each cohort already study maths in one way or another, whether it’s doing GCSE resits, A-level, Core Maths or vocational qualification like T-levels that contain an element of maths. We’re not starting from scratch in terms of uptake; the question is what we can usefully offer the other half of youngsters so they can also benefit from getting a bit better at the subject.

Which leads on to the most important point in favour of this policy: getting better at maths is a good thing in itself. It is both useful in the real world and beautiful to understand. Just as we have all benefited as more people in society learned to read and write more fluently, we’ll all be better off when greater numbers of people are fluent in numbers, stats and algebra. It’s great for the individual and employers, the economy and wider society overall.

Saying all this, it really won’t be easy to get from where we are now to full maths-to-18. We’re short of properly-qualified maths teachers as it is, and finding the additional ones needed to do this is going to be a huge barrier.

In addition, many students don’t stick with maths to 18 because they really don’t want to. The reaction today shows how much resistance there is across society to putting maths on the same level as literacy.

My time as a teacher makes me think that much of the negativity towards the subject comes from people having had bad experiences of their own at school. I can totally understand why the thought of asking youngsters to do algebra for longer fills you with dread if your own exposure to it was dire. But that’s not a good enough reason to deny others the chance to learn.

We’re only going to break the maths doom-loop, raise people’s confidence in its use, and get more quality teachers, if we make it a concrete target and grapple with the barriers along the way. It’s a really tricky, long standing issue, and not going to be cracked overnight. We often criticise politicians for avoiding the tough stuff – hats off to Rishi for making this a priority.

Like all good maths problems, finding a solution will take a lot of time and effort. Get it right though, and it might be even more satisfying than getting a bunch of teenagers to understand quadratic equations, and more lifechanging than understanding compound interest. And it might change the reactions maths teachers get when people find out what they do. 

P.S. The first best way to provoke people at parties is to admit to being a Tory.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.