Left Wing, Right Wing: Thoughts from the Politics Editor


The Prime Minister's vision for all pupils in England to study maths to 18 has been heavily criticised, but there is merit in equipping future generations for our changing economy

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Image by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

By Josh Rutland

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s first speech of 2023 saw a bold announcement – plans for all pupils in England to study maths up to the age of 18. This came as a surprise, not least to experts in the education sector who claimed they hadn’t been consulted on the proposal, but also to commentators who expected a greater emphasis on arguably more pressing matters such as the NHS. Indeed there appeared to be little appetite for curriculum reform in the broader political context.

Yet the Prime Minister qualified his plans, expressing that just half of all 16–19-year-olds currently study maths in an economy which is increasingly underpinned by data and quantitative analysis. The proposal quickly attracted criticism, most notably from the Association of School and College Leaders who, in a statement, described it as “another meaningless policy gimmick”. This wasn’t quite the endearment the Government would have hoped for.

However, there is merit to the idea, even if the exact proposal can be found in a 2011 report commissioned by David Cameron and Michael Gove. The UK economy is undeniably experiencing an accelerated shift towards tertiary and quaternary sector jobs, placing a particular focus on STEM skills.

At present, 20 percent of the UK workforce is employed in science roles, while in cities such as Cambridge the number is closer to 45 percent. STEM jobs have previously been predicted to grow at double the rate of other occupations, so the Prime Minister’s plans seem perfectly valid.

Even if the pledge does not obligate 17- and 18-year-olds to study maths as a formal A-Level qualification, improving the skillset and adaptability of future generations can only be positive in the face of a changing labour market and global competition.