Rishi, show your workings out for extra maths


Hannah Carley explores why Sunak's new policy proposal won't improve maths education

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By Hannah Carley

We are living in a time of extreme crisis. Inflation is high, families can’t afford to put food on the table, the NHS is struggling and more strikes are being announced each day. What, above all else, can provide the solution to our myriad of struggles? Wherein lies the solutions that we need?

Mathematics. This is what can make things better. Or at least, it is what can in the eyes of our Prime Minister. Rishi Sunak’s wonderful flagship policy proposal for 2023 is for all students in England to study maths until the age of 18.

It's underwhelming to say the least. On a surface level, it's difficult to see how more maths is going to benefit the next generation when the same generation seems likely to face so many more pressing issues in the future. It's a huge insult to those on strike at the moment that our Prime Minister seemingly cares more about students learning about algebra than he does about helping working people with their finances. It might be worth making sure people will have enough money in the future before you teach them how to manage it.

Lack of priorities aside, this proposal also fails to add up. Having students in school studying maths until 18 in any form will undeniably require more maths classes to accommodate them. However, an ongoing teacher shortage means that almost half of secondary schools are already using non-specialist teachers for maths lessons. Extending the presence of the subject will only make things worse. Poor funding for post-16 education, especially for non-A-Level pathways, only serves to increase the challenge.

The policy still fails to deal with the mathematics attainment gap seen already in England. Educational charity Teach First estimates that a child from a disadvantaged background is 18 months behind on average when they take their GCSEs. Making everyone study mathematics for longer does nothing to rectify educational inequality and will not support students who have already fallen behind. If Rishi Sunak truly wants to fix maths education in this country, then a couple of extra years of classes is comparable to sticking a plaster on a gaping wound.

So, all in all, I don't see this policy having the effects Rishi Sunak intends it to. Ironically though, I am the kind of person you'd think would be all for it. Despite now being a PPE student, maths was one of my greatest strengths at school. I successfully studied both maths and further maths to A-Level. On paper, I should be all for Rishi's pet project.

But here’s the thing: I studied maths because I enjoyed it. I lived for the challenge, and was excited to pair the interest with humanities at A-Level. Not everyone is, or ever should be like me, and that is arguably what this policy forgets.

I concede that this policy won’t force everyone to take A-Level maths. Yet regardless of that fact, it is set to potentially become the only compulsory subject for students in England after GCSEs. English or humanities will not get the same treatment. Why is it fair to expect students who find maths difficult and have no interest in STEM careers to take the subject for longer, when we don’t expect the same for those who struggle with reading or writing?

STEM subjects are important, and will undoubtedly play a growing role in our future economy. But making young people who are disillusioned with maths study it for longer is unfair and will only increase their dislike. Our education system is based on gradual specialisation. However, the announcement means that maths is the only subject to get special treatment.

Again, we are seeing our government place STEM on a pedestal, devaluing other pathways. It's undeniably demoralising for those people who wish to pursue the arts and humanities, and could even have a negative impact on a student’s mental health and self worth.

Even more simply, people will succeed in what they love and enjoy. They won’t find success, though, when they are unmotivated and disengaged. We need to inspire young people to pursue maths and science so that they have the ambition and drive to succeed. The answer isn’t to force them to spend longer on a subject they have no interest in - certainly not in a way that sends a mes- sage to other subjects.

Perhaps resources would be more wisely spent on specialist teachers so that students would receive a higher quality maths education at a younger age. Or in diversifying our STEM curriculum to be more inclusive. Maybe we just need to listen to teachers who have been striking and support them, so they can better support the next generation of engineers, accountants and data analysts.

There are so many things we could do to support maths education in England, but what I do believe is that all of them are better options than this.

So Rishi, if you really want this policy to come to fruition, you had better show your working out. Right now, however, I would grade you an F.