What do teachers think? And what does it mean?
In his new year message, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talked about a ‘new mission’; to ‘reimagine our approach to numeracy’, going on to say that all pupils in England will have to study maths up till the age of eighteen. It’s a controversial idea to say the least, forcing young over the school-leaving age to study something they may not wish to study – although he did mention that the government doesn’t ‘envisage’ maths ‘A’ level being mandatory… To be more precise, his words were:
‘That doesn’t have to mean compulsory A level in maths for everyone. But we will work with the sector to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18.’
The Prime Minister’s claims…
Sunak claimed that greater numeracy will give pupils the following benefits:
‘The skills to feel confident with your finances, to find the best mortgage deal or savings rate
The ability to do your job better and get paid more
And greater self-confidence to navigate a changing world.’
He goes on to say, ‘In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.’
But is he right?
Well, there’s no denying the value of mathematics, both academically and in ‘real life’. Among the most obvious areas is financial numeracy. There’s little question that a proper grasp of compound interest and associated calculations is important for anyone hoping to manage their mortgage, bank loans and credit cards without getting into trouble – and the much-quoted government statistic that around 8 million English adults are at primary school level when it comes to basic numeracy is troubling to say the least… Furthermore, one study quoted by the Daily Mail suggests that by the time they reach 33, people who studied A level maths on average earned 11% more than those who didn’t.
On the other hand, there are many studies indicating that our numerical skills and equation-solving abilities are strongly linked to our innate genetic make-up – and correlated strongly with spatial awareness and even left-handedness. The latter is a case of ‘hemispheric bias’ (a more developed right side of the brain), which is thought to arise in the womb. All this suggests that the Prime Minister’s ‘solution’ is far too simplistic and is unlikely to have anything like the impact he seems to expect.
So what does the teaching profession think?
Overall, the PM’s ‘mission’ has been received with a great deal of scepticism – if not outright scorn – from the teaching profession. Geoff Barton, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) was not impressed, commenting,
‘The only tangible measure he has announced is a vague idea of extending maths teaching up to the age of 18 for every student, without the slightest evidence of what this would achieve or an acknowledgement that we already have a severe shortage of maths teachers and the plan is therefore currently unachievable.’
Pointing out that a commitment to better education as a whole would be more beneficial both to people’s life chances and to the UK’s economic chances, the Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, David Laws commented that, ‘while there is a good case for more maths education in sixth forms and colleges, it will take many years to recruit the necessary teachers.’
And what does this mean for teachers?
Although at first glance the Prime Minister’s new ‘mission’ might conjure up visions of a ‘Brave New World’ for aspiring maths teachers, we wouldn’t suggest anyone throws away their Humanities, Languages, or Literature text books just yet in favour of the joys of algebra, statistics, probabilities, calculus and so on. The consensus seems to be that the idea is a bit of a gimmick – which tends to be supported by the fact that there’s no suggestion of everyone studying maths to A level – and that to put this into practice in any meaningful way would require the government to get rid of the system’s chronic teacher shortages.