In his first speech of 2023, the Prime Minister announced his goals for the year ahead. One of his priorities, he stated, is ensuring all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18.
The recent call from the Prime Minister to make maths compulsory throughout secondary schooling is in response to poor arithmetic achievements across England. In 2020-2021, around half of pupils at GCSE level gained below a 5 or ‘strong pass’ in their maths exams.
Evidence shows that skills acquired within mathematics have a significant impact on employability, and assist with general life-skills such as management of household bills and finances. Confidence in mathematics is necessary more in employment today than it has been in the past. But the idea is still embryonic, as Sunak’s announcement was merely stated as an ‘ambition’. It is not to be achieved during the current cabinet period. Recent outlines by the government have announced that the policy will not mean each student has to take A-level maths standard classes, but will rather take alternative qualifications that follow a more basic standard of arithmetic, though these have yet to be specified. Eventually, if British schooling adopts this measure it will be acting in line with a number of other countries who require some form of maths until 18, including Norway and Germany.
One criticism of the announcement sees that the details of how numeracy is implemented into post-16 education should be more wholesale across subjects, rather than following the traditional content of maths lessons. It has been argued that, if the focus of this policy is to improve basic numeracy competence, then certain aspects of the classical maths syllabus would be unnecessary for students. Another point, expressed by a student at King’s, is that “the importance placed on maths for the skills it teaches is not extended to other subjects, which have equally important skills to teach”. It shows that Sunak’s stance on maths may enhance the feeling that certain creative subjects are not given due accreditation or emphasis at British schools.
Despite this, students at King’s have indicated that young people, on reflection, “don’t necessarily mind maths being made obligatory”. They recognise its benefits now that they have entered university. “I feel like maths until 18 is not necessarily a bad thing… I wish I had done more maths as I think my skills are lacking in it”, said Kate Muir, a Philosophy student at King’s. Hans Frederik, also a Philosophy student at King’s originally from Norway, says, “I think I have an appreciation for having had the classes until I graduated”.
One of the most tangible criticisms involves serious concerns about staffing levels. Maths teachers have been at a severe shortage in state-funded schools during the past few years, and calls for hugely expanded mathematics education does not match-up with numbers of teachers. Recent governments have failed to match maths teacher employment targets. This ambition from Sunak also comes alongside newly announced teachers strikes from the National Education Union (NEU), highlighting tension between education staff and the government which already exists. At the moment the policy is being recognised for its benefits and necessity, but whether its implementation will be up to standard is questioned, and this will arguably come to determine how much it is welcomed by the public.