Education leaders accuse Rishi Sunak of failure to deliver on maths pledge
Education leaders have accused the government of failing to deliver a coherent plan to make maths compulsory to age 18 in England, more than three months after the policy was first announced.
In a speech on Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government had assembled a group of experts to advise on how to extend maths education to all 16 to 18-year-olds, including a potential new qualification for older students.
“We have to fundamentally change our education system so it gives our young people the knowledge and skills they need,” he said, adding the pledge would address an “anti-maths mindset” that was holding back the UK economy.
However, education leaders criticised the lack of detail on how the government would achieve its target, first announced in January. They said the proposals also failed to address the root causes of poor numeracy, which started in early years, including teacher shortages.
“It is hard to understand why the prime minister is rehashing his ambition of maths to 18 . . . with no further detail of what it will entail or how it will be delivered,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
The policy remained “vague and poorly thought out”, he added.
According to National Numeracy, an education charity, roughly four in five adults in the UK have low levels of numeracy. It added that Britain had below-average numeracy proficiency within the group of OECD nations.
Children in England are currently required to study maths until age 16, but only about half continue the subject for the next two years of formal education. This makes England an outlier among most OECD countries, where maths is compulsory until the age of 18.
Some teachers argued that resources should be targeted at improving learning at a younger age. Sam Sims, chief executive of National Numeracy, said interventions were needed before children turned 16 adding: “A much more radical overhaul is needed.”
About one-third of students in England fail to secure a good pass in maths GCSE, a compulsory exam taken at 16, according to official data.
A big obstacle to the government’s ambition is low maths teacher recruitment, with the number of new trainees consistently below government targets and falling.
Nearly half of secondary schools use non-specialists to teach at least part of their maths curriculum, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research, a think-tank.
The National Education Union, which represents teachers, said the staffing “crisis” was due to poor pay and heavy workloads, which has fuelled a recent wave of industrial action.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the government’s ambition to improve maths was laudable but its plans for delivery “simply don’t add up”.
“After 13 years in government there are not enough teachers to deliver the prime minister’s vision,” she said, adding that ministers needed to “urgently get a grip”.
Sunak said the government was working to “build children’s confidence” by introducing new maths training for primary schoolteachers and extending “maths hubs”, which partner colleges and schools to improve teaching.
He acknowledged the government would “need to recruit and train” maths teachers, and added that the expert panel would consider a new qualification in the subject.