No Rishi, forcing people to study maths until 18 will only help students at the poshest schools
My teacher could barely get me through GCSE
When Rishi Sunak announced his plan to make students in the UK study maths until they’re 18 in his first speech of 2023 and doubled down on the agenda earlier this week, the plan was called “misguided” and “shortsighted” amongst other, less polite, adjectives on social media. Simply put, the scheme to make us into a number-loving nation in the name of the economy (due to come into force on an unspecified date) is unfair. And it will only work in Britain’s poshest schools.
My experience of maths in my state (but Surrey based) secondary school was enough to make my palms sweat. At GCSE level, in a disruptive class of 30, our standard teacher was swapped out for a recently qualified assistant who couldn’t control the class— because there was a shortage of teachers available. We all fell behind. I got four per cent in our mock exam. And, if my mum hadn’t been able to afford a private tutor, I would have failed the year rather than scrape a C grade.
And I’m one of the lucky ones.
Thankfully, that was the end of my maths journey. At A-level I was free to study English Lit, Photography and Spanish without the crippling embarrassment that came with maths anxiety— a condition researchers estimate around six to 17 per cent of the population suffer with. Even without the diagnosis, ask anyone if your friendship group if they suffered any trauma learning maths within their education system and the answer will, almost always, be yes. We don’t all idolise billionaire bankers.
The problem of insufficient teacher numbers hasn’t changed since I studied GCSE maths more than a decade ago. Currently, only around one in eight maths lessons (12 per cent) are taught by someone with a maths degree. And nearly half of secondary schools are using non-specialist teachers for maths lessons the Guardian reports.
Simply put, to get somebody who has an aversion, anxiety around or difficulty understanding maths to learn the subject from 16-18 and genuinely thrive enough to make a career out of it – or even apply what they’ve learned to their daily life – as Rishi intends, will take a special type of expert teaching: Highly specialised educators the UK currently can’t find.
Maths teachers are in short supply because their skill with numbers makes them in demand for higher paid jobs in areas like banking and economics. The solution to retaining them in the education system, according to Jack Worth, an education economist and school workforce lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research, is more money. A demand, which (obviously) is more easily met by private schools that on a state school’s budget.
So, let’s say for argument’s sake, Rishi Sunak’s right. Two more years of maths will help Britain grow the economy and boost people’s chances of being employed because they’ll have “competent numeracy”. With teacher shortages as they stand, it will only be those who can afford elite education who’ll ever achieve the levels of numeracy required to thrive. Everyone else will be left with stress and failure and less time to succeed at the skills and subjects they love.
There’s nothing pioneering about that.