Mandatory mathematics – do Sunak’s sums add up?

Mick Fletcher on another back-of-the-envelope policy.

There are some huge issues in the Prime Minister’s in-tray. The health service is facing its worst ever crisis; the economic cost of Brexit is increasingly evident and falling living standards are driving mounting social unrest. In a rational world it would make no sense at all for Rishi Sunak to highlight compulsory maths as a flagship new policy.

There are, of course, clear political reasons for his choice. The most important is that he has nothing to offer on any of the big-picture issues. Fanatics on the back benches and in the constituencies are likely to veto any sensible moves in relation to Europe. An obsession with the deficit rules out the level of investment needed to repair the damage a decade of austerity has done to the NHS; and he is only the latest in a line of Conservative leaders who have nothing but platitudes to offer when faced with the unfolding disaster of social care.

More maths for kids also probably appeals to the elderly uneducated who are now a core part of the shrinking Tory vote. It helps shift the blame for economic decline from years of bad management to young people lacking key skills. It makes no demands on the baby boomer generation – or appears to, because there is no recognition that better education might need better resourcing. Talk of compulsion makes a weak prime minister sound tough.

Sunak’s proposal has attracted widespread scorn as well as more serious criticism and it is easy to see why.

PM’s maths plan labelled ‘vague’, ‘half-baked’ and ‘currently unachievable”

There are, however, two good reasons for not dismissing the idea out of hand, despite the fact that a prime minister really should focus his energy on the major issues of the day and leave education policy to those better informed.

The first is that Britain’s relative economic decline, which exacerbates all the social problems we currently face, is driven by persistently weak productivity. We produce less per hour worked than major competitors and are falling further behind. More maths is not a magic bullet, but could be part of a drive to grow a more skilled workforce and encourage high skill, high wage production strategies.

The second is that almost all other advanced economies require the study of maths until the age of 18. Our offer for those aged 16-18 is unusually narrow. It affects subjects other than maths as well, but maths has particular importance for a range of technical occupations. 

To move from a prime minister’s soundbite to serious policy, however, we need to distinguish three groups of young people.

Around 90,000 young people each year study A level maths, making it the most popular choice by a considerable margin. Psychology (75,000) and Biology (65,000) are the next most popular. Both the numbers and proportion studying maths have increased steadily over the last 20 years and now around a third of all students taking A levels include maths. The Department for Education has been quick to make clear that Sunak’s proposal does not mean A level maths for everyone, but it is not clear whether his ambition is for many more to take it up. That might be difficult to achieve.

A very different group of young people are already required to study maths up to GCSE standard by age 18 unless they achieve that level earlier. In 2018 there were some 145,000 in this category, mostly in colleges of further education. Compulsion would not be new for this group, but a properly thought-out policy should include serious consideration of what exactly they should study. The current policy of forcing young people to re-sit the same GCSE course has been widely criticised as demoralising, and a pass rate of around 25 per cent strongly suggests it is failing.

Sunak is right that some numeracy skills are needed to thrive in the modern world, but it is not at all clear that all of GCSE maths is relevant. Most people will never need to solve a quadratic equation or use trigonometry. On the other hand, understanding when politicians misuse statistics is increasingly important. For many young people, focusing maths around the skills needed in a vocational context – calculating quantities for construction projects or costing menus in catering, for example – can prove motivating and lead to success.

The third and largest group of young people are those who succeed at GCSE maths but choose to take it no further. These are the ones who would be most affected by the prime minister’s policy and where its implementation would be most complex.  As with the previous group, a key question is what sort of maths they should be studying and Sunak’s simplistic assertions don’t give much of a guide.

What would be wrong would be to impose a sort of A level maths ‘lite’ that wouldn’t be sufficient to provide access to STEM (Science, technology, engineering & maths) subjects in higher education, but would contain elements only relevant to preparation for that route.  A good offer might be a mixture of those numeracy skills helpful in everyday life and those most relevant to specific academic or vocational contexts – statistics for social scientists, for example. Whatever the content, it would only be taken seriously if universities or employers began to make it a requirement. Has anyone asked them?

Once one begins to explore what compulsory maths might look like for this group it becomes clear that it is not a simple step. Considerable investment would be needed in curriculum development. Additional maths teachers would need to be trained and recruited when we already face a shortfall, and are failing to fill all the training places available.

There are other big questions. Would studying maths mean less time for the other subjects or would it be in addition?  If the former, it risks ‘dumbing down’ which universities and employers might object to. If the latter, it needs more resource. There is no slack in the system since students in England already receive an average of ten hours’ less teaching time per week than their counterparts in other OECD countries. The sixth form phase has suffered most from years of austerity.

Broadening the curriculum for some, by adding maths, raises the question of whether a wider curriculum for all might not be a bad idea. There is certainly scope in the school day for something more like a baccalaureate approach, where students continue to follow a broad range of subjects until 18. If increased funding allowed maths for arts students, then modern languages for scientists could be affordable, and help fill another well-reported deficiency. Reforming our narrow A level curriculum, however, is something that neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher dared to tackle. It is far too tough for a second-rate leader like Sunak.

The prime minister may be right to focus on mathematics, but he presents no evidence to support his assertions. We don’t know what the benefit of extra maths classes might be or what kind of maths might make a difference.  We don’t know whether compulsion is the right approach or whether there are more effective strategies. We don’t know what reforms might be put in place in the hope of effecting improvement. We don’t know whether it would be better to strengthen maths teaching at earlier ages.

Is more mathematics the answer? It really depends on the question.