28 April 2023

What should Sunak’s ‘maths to 18’ mean in practice?

By Daniel Harrison

Rishi Sunak has proposed that British children learn Maths for an extra two years, until the age of 18. The Prime Minister sees poor Maths as a barrier to the UK’s economy and has decried a ‘culture’ in the UK that sees many make light of their poor Maths skills. What his proposals will resolve in practice, however, remains to be seen.

Some teenagers will, of course, carry on taking a full Maths A-Level – but ministers are yet to set out what those who don’t choose to proceed and learn about logarithms, Newton’s law, and geometry.

While I’m sure Sunak has a vision for what form the extra Maths education will be, the lack of detail has resulted in some critics calling the policy ‘hollow’.

To be a meaningful reform, compulsory Maths cannot just result in slightly more students learning advanced mathematics. It needs to help all students. To achieve this, the curriculum must be stripped to the basics of providing students with a toolkit through which they can navigate the world. The harsh reality is that we rank 15th out of 29 among OECD countries for financial literacy. Whether you call it ‘core maths’, ‘applied maths’ or something else, we should all be able to agree that children need practical education on skills they will actually use in the real world. That means finance, budgeting, statistics, probability, and risk.

To be a success, this education must be rooted in practical application. There is no point continuing many childrens’ education in theories and concepts which seem to have no relation to their day-to-day lives or their futures. l. Instead this course must go back to basics. Kids need to learn more about the skills of budgeting and investing before they leave school. This is the only way to ensure every child leaves with the ability to competently manage their personal finances and set off on a journey that will ultimately see them achieve financial freedom in retirement.

Without this focus on practical skills, we will have failed to prepare our children for the world after school. The danger is that when the stabilisers come off at 18 kids are thrust into a financially unforgiving adult world and are forced to learn by doing, making a raft of needless mistakes on their way.

For instance, when kids go to university, they receive a maintenance loan, the upper end of which can be over £10,000 per year, to use for their rent and other living costs. However, they are not given any education on how exactly to make it stretch effectively, leaving many struggling to manage their finances.

The truth is that financially surviving at university can be tough but the experience of university should be fun. The answer should be showing kids that by budgeting effectively they can enhance their lives in both the short and the long term.

Turning to those entering the world of work, my company’s research shows one in four millennials is not saving anything each month, and the majority do not know how much they need to save for retirement.

Education about investing should be a defining feature of the Maths reforms to help promote greater social mobility for the next generation of kids. At school, we are not taught how to make our money work for us and the value of things like compound interest. Starting early instils the importance of these skills in kids, giving them a core knowledge that they can use later in life. Building this generation of younger people whose wealth itself then builds as they age will have a host of economic benefits and mean that issues such as the state pension triple lock become less intense.

Sunak must ensure that his reforms raise every level of Maths education to meet the standards required of a developed economy. Basic financial literacy skills therefore need to be part of a Maths transformation to ensure the lowest bar is raised as well as the highest.

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Daniel Harrison is chief executive of True Potential.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.