“Tough new laws” on strike action and maths until 18. Rishi Sunak has kicked off 2023 by proving that he really knows how to read a room, and for that, he gets the grilling he deserves.
When writing his priorities for the year, Rishi Sunak must have been feeling confused. No doubt he is a skilled mathematician, but here he faces the mother of all equations: solving an incomprehensible number of issues in Britain. For many people, a long list problems can spiral into an untameable crisis, but not for the Prime Minister. He knows what is on the minds of millions in 2023. Mr Sunak, take the floor.
“Right now, just half of all 16 to 19 year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before. Letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down,” he said in a speech in April.
You heard him right. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants students in the UK to learn maths up until the age of 18, which means students would be carrying around their abacuses (abaci? That just sounds like a Pokémon) until well after they’ve already left Year 11.
The statement is bursting with Rishi-isms, but primarily it makes one thing clear. In Sunak’s world, maths and economics are paramount. These two subjects, combined with a shared marital bank account, have resulted in his massive wealth and he cannot understand why everyone else is not achieving that same result. But why did the Prime Minister choose to drop this policy pipe bomb now, and does it actually make any sense?
Political commentator & podcaster Marina Purkiss is a consistent critic of the government, whether it be on Twitter, Good Morning Britain, or her podcast The Trawl, and Sunak’s speech did not go unnoticed by her.
She says, “Rishi Sunak has completely failed to read the room. Of all of the things he should be focusing on right now, this shouldn’t even be on the list. There is a crisis across so many parts of society right now, with the cost of living, NHS, social care, and striking. There is not a maths crisis. We don’t have enough teachers and support, we don’t even have kids going to school properly fed. How can they concentrate on numbers when their bellies are rumbling?
“It is a pathetic policy, and it might seem familiar to people, because it is! Cameron pledged it in 2014. It’s not a new idea, you can’t even credit Sunak for some fresh thinking here. Some might call it a dead cat policy – just something to chuck on the tablet to distract from Britain collapsing around us – and to that degree, I think it did actually work.”
Indeed, there has been a mighty chatter about all things maths after the PM’s sudden statement, and trying to work out the reasoning behind it. Perhaps Sunak accidentally let one of his impulsive thoughts slip out, of a world full of Rachel Rileys, all eager to show their working.
Maybe he was trying to divert our attention away from the strikes (and his hot takes on how to stop them) towards something that seems related but, in truth, isn’t. He’s suffering for it in the eyes of the public, not only because of the childhood trauma they endured at the hands of the cosine rule, but because it is flat-out nonsensical.
His suggestion has only multiplied concerns about the disparity in approach between the government and those working in education. The dream that all pupils will study maths until they are 18 was tossed at schools and colleges without any reference to research, support or assistance.
Victoria Price, a maths teacher in Bristol with a long-term love for all things algebraic, says, “I was surprised by the announcement. I agree that areas of maths are vital for everyday life, but not everyone enjoys or understands mathematical concepts. If the 16-18 curriculum is adapted so mathematical life skills like budgeting are taught where appropriate, then yes!
“Otherwise, there is the potential to further maths phobia, which has a lasting impact on students’ learning. If young people don’t have an interest in maths, forcing them to study for a further two years could put them off their studies altogether. Maths has always been a subject people have either loved or the opposite.
“He has made this announcement but not clarified what will be expected to be learnt, or what kind of targets will be expected to be met, which only creates confusion.”
Vague targets and lack of real world application are two criticisms the UK school system has not been able to shake over the last decade, ever since the controversial reforms led by Michael Gove as Education Secretary in the early 2010s, which saw his name become the equivalent of a malign slur in many schools across the country, his “snobbery and lack of trust in the profession” cited as inspiring teachers to leave the job altogether.
This, along with more job options for maths graduates, declining pay for teachers, and a higher number of school students means the UK is experiencing a maths teacher shortage. This might have sounded like the best thing ever when you were 14, but is actually very bad, especially as the government has failed to hit their initial teacher training target for maths teachers every year for the last decade. The Department of Education argues that this is due to an increase in existing trained maths teachers rejoining the workforce, although this was to be expected after the pandemic and ignores the issue of poor staff retention in these roles.
This will impact students’ mathsy engagement; something that the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM) studies with intent. The charity works to support the teaching and learning of Maths to move the subject further as a whole, and has over 4,000 members, including individual teachers, whole schools, and a General Council, led by chair Louise Hoskyns-Staples.
Louise says, “There is excellent provision in the form of Core Maths for 16-18 year olds, but this qualification is falling hugely short of targeted recruitment numbers. Were there suitable teaching provision in place, there is the potential for us to have a well-educated and mathematically literate population. However, there is an acute shortage of mathematics teachers for pupils aged to 16 and there is no provision for further recruitment.
“Sufficient teaching strategies which enable teachers to engender a love of mathematics is sorely needed currently, before we begin to implement further change. Sunak’s statement appears to be a sound bite without substance, and until we address the provision of teachers, this is nothing other than hot air.”
With teachers having held strike action already across the UK over low pay and excessive workload, with the potential of more in July, Sunak and his anti-protest government will likely be reluctant to fund more teacher training – just in case the trainee teachers do actually decide to go into the profession, realise they aren’t getting paid enough, so turn around and join the picket line. Read more on strikes and the Public Order Act here.
Well, if they’re allowed to. In January, Sunak defended proposed legislation that sets out “tough new laws” for a “minimum level of service” from organisations looking to strike. It would basically mean that if you are going to strike, you need a backup job ready to go, as failure to comply with your employer could get you sued by your own boss.
One member of staff responsible for early careers teacher training at a secondary school in Cambridgeshire – let’s call her Jenny – says, “If we are expected to work in some capacity then what’s the point? In the caring professions, when they’ve been on strike, there is a contingency plan already in place. There doesn’t need to be a law because the last thing these professions want is to put people’s lives and futures at risk.”
“Putting a law in place is yet again the government’s way of saying they are in control and making all the decisions on the strikers’ behalf.”
The PM’s maths-until-adulthood plan has not only caused stress for those involved with the subject. It also has damaging connotations for those with aspirations in other spheres of education, reducing their options and closing doors to creative futures.
Jenny adds, “Yes, maths is useful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for everybody; there are some students who are much more hands-on and practical based.
“Something like maths would put so much anxiety and pressure on some of the children to feel like they have to be good in a subject area where they might not even use that. Other jobs or careers might help them with those skills if they do require them anyway. I don’t think it’s a well thought through plan.”
18-year-old Emma Critchley is currently studying Photography, Film Studies and English Literature at A-level, having escaped the clutches of post-16 maths two summers ago.
She says, “I don’t think it’s a good idea, as not everyone enjoys and understands maths. I’ve never had a maths brain, I just about managed to get my GCSE, and the idea of being forced back into that makes me stressed.
“It just seems like the government doesn’t care about students who are interested in creative subjects, like we don’t have a place in their plans at all. It does make me a bit worried, like I might not be valued as much if I don’t have these specific maths or tech skills, but I have faith in creative people and hope that people will still understand the value of things that aren’t all just black and white.”
Whilst Emma feels anxious about what the implications of a maths-priority education would be, this does not seem to be anything new from the government.
Marina says, “I think it shows Sunak has got complete disdain for the arts and creative people, which has been seen consistently with the tories. Do you remember that ad from a couple of years ago, which implied a ballerina needed to retrain in cyber? I mean, could they show any more contempt for the arts? They’re just trying to churn out data entry drones.
“It’s fine to accommodate people who are interested but you can’t force people to do that, so there needs to be sufficient funding in place to support different interests. Political and critical thinking should be taught instead. If I could design the curriculum, the ability to think critically and scrutinise is a good basis for thinking.”
If there were more critical thinking initiatives employed in the education system, it would allow for sweeping declarations such as Sunak’s to be more appropriately disregarded by the population. This is as opposed to the perpetual cycle becoming all too familiar in the UK political landscape right now: a sudden spike in interest, followed by a period of heightened criticism backed up by minimal knowledge, ending in the issue being hurriedly swept under the carpet until ministers inevitably exposes their inadequacies on the topic in the future.
Maybe the way forward is to resist the rapid cycle of news surrounding the PM, education, strikes and the sort, and actually let Sunak’s uninformed dreams of a utopian maths-loving workforce marinate until even he realises that the bad smell is coming from them. If he and his peers are not prepared to consult a wide range of specialists before they change millions of lives, they will only push those millions away at the next general election.