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Mandatory Maths Until 18—Does it Add Up?

Staff writer Jana Bazeed takes a look at the arguments on either side of the proposal for mandatory Maths in schools until the age of 18.

On January 4, Rishi Sunak outlined his ambitions to mandate that ‘some form’ of Mathematics be taught to all students up to age 18. This change will not be happening until after the next general election and aside from clarifying that students will not be forced to study A-level Mathematics, at this stage, little is known as to how this will actually be implemented.

Students in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway, and the USA already abide by similar requirements. In fact, the UK is one of the only OECD countries where students are not required to study Maths of some description from ages 16-18. According to government statistics, around 8 million adults in England have the numeracy skills of primary school children.

Sunak argues that “in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, letting our children out into that world without those skills, is letting our children down.” There lies some truth in Sunak’s claims; studies have shown that students who studied Maths and Further Maths at A-level earned up to £10,000 more than their peers on average, and that employability was closely linked with Mathematical proficiency. Moreover, in an increasingly digital world, data literacy and logical reasoning have been repeatedly identified as essential skills for the job market of tomorrow.

Beyond that, it has become evident that the benefits of studying Maths are not purely fiscal; research has highlighted the relationship between continued study of Maths in young adults and cognitive development. A recent Oxford study suggests that not having any Maths education after age 16 can be disadvantageous, leading to a noticeable reduction in a critical chemical for brain development in a key region responsible for important cognitive functions such as reasoning and memory. And, although most people would disagree, especially with Maths anxiety being a prominent subject of debate as of late, a 2016 study from Duke shows links between practicing Maths (albeit at a basic level) and a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. While there’s no denying that improving numeracy rates benefits all involved parties, critics have pointed out that Sunak’s approach needs recalculation.

This is not the first time that Sunak has taken issue with the current British education system. During his campaign last summer, Sunak had proposed the introduction of a ‘British Baccalaureate’ that would prevent 16-year-olds from opting out of English and Mathematics, mirroring the International Baccalaureate (IB).

We must re-examine the purpose of secondary education; is it simply to prepare students for further study and their chosen career paths, or more widely prepare them for the ‘real world’? The English education system is recognised worldwide for its encouragement of specialisation from a relatively early stage. While this enables students to pursue more rigorous study by focusing on areas they are interested in and playing to their strengths, the system’s rigidity may be causing more harm than good; a more holistic approach to education would result in more well-rounded students who are better equipped for the demands of a rapidly evolving job market.

For most people, basic Maths—oftentimes even simpler than that taught at GCSE level—may be all they ever need in their day-to-day lives. If the goal is just to improve the general population’s financial literacy and equip them with the skills they need for an increasingly quantitative world, providing students with the means to focus on and develop these abilities seems more practical.

It is clear that students already see the value in Mathematics, with is being the most subscribed A-level subject, yet by making it mandatory, some fear that this may act as a deterrent to students from choosing to study it to a higher level. Conversely, the focus on Maths would come at the expense of other subjects, namely, humanities ones. Recent years have already seen a fall in students choosing to do A-levels in languages, arts, and humanities, deeming them ‘less valuable’. Since the late 1990s, the push for STEM has been picking up momentum and shows no sign of slowing down, the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics becoming synonymous with lucrative careers and a greater perceived value to society.

As a Physics and Philosophy student, I’m acutely aware of my biases on this matter. I believe in numbers: science is vital for society’s continued development, and our increased reliance on data and technology is a trend that will only grow exponentially throughout our lifetimes. It is foolish to ignore this, and yes, our education systems need to adapt to keep up with the times. Yet, it is frustrating that there exists a persistent narrative that this somehow makes other disciplines ‘useless’ in comparison. By promoting the perception that Maths is more important or practical, the false dichotomy between art and science is widened. Even in a digital world, creativity, critical thinking and communication skills remain as important as ever. Moreover, it’s interesting how the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake in more creative fields is often undervalued, neglecting that even pure Mathematics can be largely abstract. Not everything we study has to be vocational or hold a direct ‘real world’ application, else there wouldn’t be any room left for nurturing curiosity and innovation, and we would be stuck in a state of stagnancy.

Even if we presume that making Maths compulsory is necessary for England’s future, is it even feasible? For all the talk about the importance of statistics and data, Sunak should pay closer consideration to the numbers: in a time of a long-term shortage of qualified Maths teachers, with 45% of schools having the subject taught by non-specialist teachers, Sunak’s plans are but a pipe dream. The ongoing National Education Union (NUE) strikes have highlighted the strained relationship between educators and the government, and it is imperative that their concerns are tackled first before Sunak’s ambitions can be realised—what good is a push for further education in Mathematics if students do not have a strong foundation to build upon and there are no qualified educators to provide it?

The recognition that improving numeracy should be a priority is welcomed, and perhaps long overdue. However, until the details of how this ambition would take shape are clarified, it is not unjustified to fear its potential repercussions. Regardless, the debate it prompted has made it clear that when it comes to our approach to education, it is time to check our work.

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