There is something faintly ridiculous about the current Prime Minister’s plans, unveiled today, about compulsory maths for 16-18 year olds. I read, and watched with dismay as there was soundbite after soundbite on the economy, the NHS and education. I intend to focus only on the maths stuff for now.
How important is maths?
Maths is amazingly important. It permeates every part of our lives in some way. Ok, I am a maths teacher, and have been for many many years. I would say that. Maths is there, of course, in shopping, in budgeting, in cooking, in figuring out if you have been paid the correct amount, in solving problems – and this is just in ordinary everyday life.
Maths is also there when you try to make sense of the news. In the last few years, for example, we have been bombarded with figures and graphs – think of the Covid-19 statistics and reports, just as an obvious example. It is really important that we are all equipped to understand and question data, something that Rishi Sunak referred to in his speech today. He is right in this respect.
However (and it is a big ‘however’) does this mean that all 16-18 year olds should be forced to study maths in school or similar? And what is the thinking behind this?
Why study maths aged 16-18?
Some people love maths. I do. That’s why I made the choice, many years ago to study it post-16. I enjoyed maths and still do. It’s fun, I love solving problems. One of my students told me recently that maths was his favourite subject, that for him it was “just like a puzzle” and that he loves puzzles. That’s great, and something that I completely identify with.
However, this is not the case for many people. I have met hundreds (or thousands) of people, young and older, who are terrified of maths and for whom it has caused a huge amount of anxiety and distress. My job as a teacher has been to try and patiently understand and support, and make it as painless and as possible for those students to achieve what they can and what they need. It is not simple.
I am not convinced that it is necessary (or even desirable) for all 16-18-year-olds to study maths. Sunak today did say that it would not necessarily mean studying maths at A-level. This was a start but still managed to sound like he thought that might be an option. Really? We might need to wait and see on that one.
How practical is this plan?
The answer is that it is somewhat impractical. It appears that little thought has been given to the shortage of maths teachers. Today in a statement from the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary said:
“The Prime Minister’s statement is baffling in its failure to notice the obstacles to his ambitions to extend maths education: schools and colleges lack the teachers to deliver it,”
He also adds:
“Sunak’s plan is disappointing not only in its lack of realism but its lack of vision. It overlooks the increasingly detailed and urgent discussions about curriculum reform that have been taking place across the education sector and even within his own party.“
I don’t plan to say too much on this one, as others will. But it’s strange that the Prime Minister is talking about school maths in the face of overwhelming problems in the NHS, the cost-of-living crisis, the strikes, climate change…I could go on.
And the way forward?
Therefore, I suggest that the situation is far from as simple as Sunak’s rather glib comments today. Today it was reported that the government may be looking at existing qualifications as well as “more innovative options.” It is extremely complex and needs proper thought and planning, preferably (and actually essentially) with the time, input, and thought from ordinary and experienced real-life maths teachers.
I suspect that this may not happen.