Rishi Sunak, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, wants to improve the numeracy of the population by changing the “anti-maths mindset” with a plan to teach some form of maths to students until the end of their secondary education.
The prime minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, would like to change the “anti-maths mindset” in the country.
“We make jokes about not being able to do maths, it’s socially acceptable. But we never make a joke like that about not being able to read,” Mr. Sunak said on April 17 during a speech at the London Screen Academy to point out the “cultural issue” of the country around mathematics.
To curb the deficiencies in numeracy, the government on Monday announced the creation of an advisory group that includes mathematicians, education leaders and business representatives to identify the core maths content that 16-to-18-year-olds need to learn.
The announcement comes three months after the prime minister already mentioned a “Maths to 18″ plan to get young people in England to study maths up to the age of 18, without giving many details in early January.
Workers with low numeracy earn 6.5% less
The plan for now also includes more training to support the development of math teachers in primary schools and an expansion of centers boosting the collaboration between math teachers to improve their teaching methods.
Numeracy in the U.K. is lower than average compared to other developed countries. Currently, eight million adults in the U.K. have maths skills lower than those expected of a nine-year-old, according to the government. It also has financial consequences.
In 2021, U.K. charities National Numeracy and Pro Bene Economics published a report with KPMG estimating that 16 million workers in the U.K. with low numeracy earn 6.5 percent less, or 1,550 pounds per year (1,900 dollars), than they could if they had a basic level of numeracy. It was the equivalent of a difference in income of 25 billion pounds annually. In 2012, Pro Bene Economics estimated the wage shortfall at 17 billion pounds nationally.
The government claims that students in countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway, routinely study some form of maths up to the age of 18. But while maths is already the most popular A-level subject, the end-of-high-school exam used as a college-entry test, the reform will not make math compulsory in A-Level for all students, it insists on clarifying.
“Maths is as important to the creative sector as it is to finance,” said Mr. Sunak, who has a financial background, considering that “without a solid foundation in maths, our children risk being left behind, short out of careers they’re aspiring to, and the lives that they want to lead.”
And the advisory group represents a first step to understanding how 16-to-18-year-olds can “get the skills they need to get on in life” before coming back “with a detailed plan to deliver” the changes. Studying how other countries teach maths is one of its tasks.
Difficulties in recruiting math teachers
For Sam Sims, the chief executive of National Numeracy, such a reform will not radically change the deficiencies in maths skills as he pleads for a more radical overhaul across the entire education journey. “Addressing poor numeracy needs to start much earlier than 16. We need a ‘cradle to career’ vision for numeracy in the U.K. focussing on maths in real life.”
Critics of the plan also argue it will not solve the shortage of math teachers that would improve the numeracy deficiency.
For Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the education trade union Association of School and College Leaders, the prime minister’s announcement seems “like an attempt to divert attention away from the most pressing matter in education in England which is the industrial dispute triggered by the erosion of teacher pay and conditions and resulting crisis in recruiting and retaining enough staff.”
Teachers have been massively on strikes in recent weeks, with teaching unions asking for salary increases above inflation. Several protests are still scheduled for April and May, except in Wales and Scotland. At the same time, the prime minister’s first priority is to halve inflation as the consumer price index rose by 10.4 percent annually in February 2023. Inflation has shown a double-digit figure nearly every month since last July.
Bridget Phillipson, a Labor party member of Parliament, argued the prime minister “can’t deliver this empty, reheated pledge without more math teachers.”
In 2021, schools reported the highest number of vacancies since 2010, according to the Parliament’s Education Committee, which launched an inquiry into teacher recruitment, training and retention in state-funded English schools in March. Moreover, the country only filled 59 percent of its recruitment targets for trainee secondary teachers in 2022-2023. The teacher supply challenge is marked particularly by a lack of physics, chemistry and maths teachers, according to a 2022 report from the National Foundation for Educational Research.
The deficiency in mathematics for 16-to-18-year-olds is an issue public officials have been trying to improve for years.
The department of Education and the Exchequer commissioned an independent review of mathematics education for 16-to-18-year-olds in England in 2017 already. Conducted by Sir Adrian Smith, the statistician and then vice-chancellor of the University of London was asked to consider the case feasibility of all students continuing some form of mathematics until 18.
The report made a strong case for raising participation in post-16 mathematics but clearly concluded the country didn’t yet have “the appropriate range of pathways available or the capacity to deliver the required volume and range of teaching.”
It also included the need to “address negative cultural perceptions of mathematics.” At the time, Nick Gibb, the minister of State for School standards until September 2021 when Boris Johnson removed him from the position, answered that “work was already underway to address a number of the challenges” that the report highlighted. Mr. Sunak reappointed Mr. Gibb as Schools Minister on October 2022.
On Monday, Mr. Sunak said the change in the “anti-maths mindset” will not happen overnight.