Six ways Rishi Sunak's vague plan to teach more maths doesn't add up

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Six ways Rishi Sunak
Six ways Rishi Sunak's vague plan to teach more maths doesn't add up

In his first speech of 2023 Rishi Sunak laid out his plans for all children in England to “study some form of maths to 18”.

Critics branded the details, which were trailed before the speech, as a diversion from the NHS ’s worst-ever crisis, consecutive strikes and a crippling cost-of-living crisis.

The privately-educated former Winchester College head boy said: “This is personal for me.

"Every opportunity I've had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive and it's the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.”

Mr Sunak, who is a multi-millionaire, former investment banker, said: “We're one of the few countries not to require our children to study some form of maths up to the age of 18. Right now, just half of all 16 to 19 year olds study any maths at all.

Teachers, civil servants and train drivers walk out in biggest strike in decade rriqudirriezinvTeachers, civil servants and train drivers walk out in biggest strike in decade
Six ways Rishi Sunak's vague plan to teach more maths doesn't add upRishi Sunak made a gushing speech about why maths is 'personal' for him (PA)

“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. So we need to go further. I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system.”

But what does all this really mean?

We’ve broken down why Mr Sunak’s gushing speech is out of touch with the real issues the education system is facing…

Six ways Rishi Sunak's vague plan to teach more maths doesn't add upThe Prime Minister wants every child to study some form of maths until age 18 (stock photo) (Getty Images)

Non-specialist teachers

Mr Sunak failed to mention major teacher shortages - or how he plans to increase the numbers of maths teachers in order to fulfil his plan.

Under the current system, maths lessons are already often taught by those who don’t specialise in the subject.

A study at the end of last year found almost half of secondary schools are using non-specialist teachers for maths lessons.

Teacher shortages “may be acting as a drag on system-wide improvement of pupil outcomes”, according to the study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Joint boss of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney said: "What's baffling to us is the Prime Minister just seems to be failing to notice that obstacle to doing it, that schools and colleges don't have the teachers to deliver it.”

He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "The Government has cut teacher pay every year since 2010 and his Government's policies for teacher recruitment aren't bringing in maths teachers, or any other teachers, in sufficient numbers. They have missed their target for maths teachers in every one of the last 12 years."

‘Catastrophic’ levels of trainee teachers

The amount of graduates training to be teachers in England has slumped to “catastrophic” levels.

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Just under 29,000 graduates have signed up this year, a 20% fall compared with 36,000 last year, and far below the 40,000 trainees registered during the pandemic in 2020-21, according to the Department for Education’s initial teacher training figures.

The Government has missed its own targets in nine of the past 10 years for secondary school recruitment, where they are at just 59% of the DfE’s annual target.

It is still below its target for trainee maths teachers too - at 90%.

Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “The Prime Minister needs to show his working.

"He cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers, yet the government has missed their target for new maths teachers year after year, with existing teachers leaving in their droves."

Teachers might strike over working conditions

Mr Sunak failed to mention the fact teachers were currently being balloted on whether to take strike action.

Ballots for strike action for the National Education Union, NASUWT, the teachers’ union, and NAHT, the headteachers’ union, all close next week.

Teachers are angry about pay and staff shortages. Without conditions being improved, more teachers are likely to leave. Nearly half of teachers plan to quit the profession within the next five years, a survey found last year.

Commenting on Mr Sunak’s maths plan, Mr Courtney said: "It's astonishing that he thinks he can just announce this when there are not the resources there to back it up.

"He would have to signal that he is going to make a move on teacher pay and teacher workload in order to solve the teacher recruitment crisis."

Asked if he believes Rishi Sunak's comments are a snub, Mr Courtney said he believed it would encourage more teachers to vote for strike action, saying: "The snub is in not recognising the problem that his Government has created around teacher recruitment."

Six ways Rishi Sunak's vague plan to teach more maths doesn't add upNon-specialist teachers are already teaching maths due to a shortage of maths teachers

Does the plan mean everyone will do an A-level in maths?

Mr Sunak said his maths expansion plan “doesn't have to mean a compulsory A-level of maths for everyone”. But he didn't spell out how that'll work in practice.

Catherine Sezen, Association of Colleges Education Director, said: “To truly have an impact, this strategy must focus on the entire cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds, not just the roughly 275,000 who take A Levels.

“More than 300,000 of the 18-year-olds who remain in education are on other pathways – including BTECs and T Levels – while around 15% are in work, some are on apprenticeships and some not in education, employment or training at all.

“To achieve the Prime Minister’s ambition for all young people to continue studying maths post-16 the sums must add up, with appropriate qualifications for students working at different levels, adequate staffing levels, and sustainable funding for colleges and sixth forms.”

As far as it goes, the Prime Minister has laid out no plans for how he’d implement the plan. All we know is that he “will work with the sector to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18”.

The current curriculum needs reviewing as it is

Downing Street said about eight million adults in England “have the numeracy skills of primary schoolchildren”.

It added: “Currently only around half of 16-19-year-olds study any maths at all and the problem is particularly acute for disadvantaged pupils, 60% of whom do not have basic maths skills at age 16.”

Ms Sezen said: “A thorough review and restructuring of maths from age 14, at least, is required given the unhelpful cliff-edge nature of GCSE maths and the negative barrier this creates for a third of young people at age 16 who are forced to resit their exams."

It could take a decade to implement

Rishi Sunak made no indication of the timeframe for his plan to be implemented, nor how it will be funded. He admitted it won't be done by the next election in 2024.

A 2017 Department for Education review estimated it would take 10 years to enable compulsory maths for 16-18 year olds.

“In relation to the issue of most or all students continuing mathematics until 18… we might realistically aspire to such a vision within a decade,” the report said.

Ms Sezen added: "Speeches are the easy part. Progress needs an implementation plan based on evidence, backed by appropriate funding."

Lib Dem education spokesperson Munira Wilson: "The Prime Minister's words mean nothing without the extra funding and staff to make it happen. You don't need a maths A-Level to know it takes more teachers to teach maths to age 18 than to 16.

“But schools are already struggling with a shortage of maths teachers, and the Conservatives have no plan to turn that around.

"If Rishi Sunak is serious about reversing the Conservatives' awful record on numeracy, he should start by cancelling the planned cuts to early years education and come forward with a real plan to recruit and retain the teachers we need.”

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Sophie Huskisson

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15.07.2024, 17:44 • Investigation