Do Rishi Sunak’s ‘maths to 18’ plans add up?

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Pen resting on top of paper with maths equations

By Kalsoom Akhtar, Lecturer in Primary Education (Mathematics), School of Education,
University of Birmingham

Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement has sparked a lot of discussion on the importance of studying maths for 16 to 18-year-olds, generating a mixed reaction from different sectors of society. As someone who is passionate about maths education, I see the opportunities this offers, as well as the glaring limitations.

Let’s start with the positives. It is no secret that numeracy skills are essential for a growing economy. Mathematics is the foundation of many fields, from finance to engineering, and it plays a crucial role in problem-solving and critical thinking. By studying maths in greater depth, 16 to 18-year-olds will be better equipped with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce and contribute to the country’s economic growth.

A key point within this announcement is also identifying the need for a shift in the current ‘mindset’ of ‘maths anxiety’ that plagues adults and students and has resulted in many people struggling with their numeracy skills. By promoting maths as a fundamental skill required in everyday life, we can encourage students to develop their maths skills, which could prove essential in the future. This includes fostering financial literacy, which equips students with the tools required to manage their finances and navigate the complexities of the financial world. Additionally, a skilled workforce in the fields of engineering, data analytics, and technology, among others, is necessary to drive economic growth and prosperity.

However, there are also some questions to consider. The current recruitment crisis is a significant issue, with this year again seeming to fall short of the target for recruitment of maths teachers. According to recent figures from the Department for Education (DfE), only 62% of the target number of ITT applications have been received. This means that there is already a shortage of maths teachers and we do not have enough qualified teachers to deliver high-quality maths education. This raises the question: how would this increased maths provision be delivered?

Another concern is the importance of creativity in maths teaching. We need to think about why there is ‘maths anxiety’ in the first place and how we could address this effectively. Depending upon how it is taught, maths can be a challenging subject, and students may struggle to engage with it, especially if it’s taught in a formulaic and uninspiring way. To truly excel in maths, students need to be encouraged to think creatively and find innovative solutions to original and non-routine problems. This is especially important for those who do not enjoy maths or struggle with the subject. As Caleb Gattegno (1988) said, ‘This is the way of teaching…to inspire, not to inform’. One option, amongst many others, could be a focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) rather than just STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and may provide a more well-rounded education that fosters creativity and innovation. It is essential to recognise the value of the arts and humanities, which can be incorporated into maths education more explicitly to make it more engaging and relevant to students.

Another consideration is how this policy would bridge the gap between privileged and non-privileged learners. Providing additional resources to those who are already academically excelling may further entrench existing inequalities. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure the accessibility and equity of such a programme for all.

In short, while there are positives to Rishi Sunak’s proposal to promote maths education for 16 to 18-year-olds, it is crucial to address the concerns raised by stakeholders to ensure that this policy achieves its intended outcomes in helping more of our young people excel.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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