End the 'anti-maths mindset' to grow UK's economy Rishi Sunak says

17 April 2023, 01:18 | Updated: 17 April 2023, 13:13

The UK needs to bring an end to its “anti-maths mindset” to help young people in their careers and grow the economy, Rishi Sunak will say.
The UK needs to bring an end to its “anti-maths mindset” to help young people in their careers and grow the economy, Rishi Sunak will say. Picture: Getty / Alamy

By Chris Samuel

The UK needs to bring an end to its “anti-maths mindset” to help young people in their careers and grow the economy, Rishi Sunak will say.

On Monday, the Prime Minister's plan to get all pupils studying maths will move a step closer, as he announces an expert-led review to ensure all children in England study some form of maths until the age of 18, without making maths A-Level compulsory.

He will use a speech on Monday, to take aim at a “cultural sense that it’s OK to be bad at maths” which he believes is putting children “at a disadvantage” by depriving them of the he analytical skills required in the workplace.

The UK continues to be one of the only countries that doesn't have a requirement for children to study some form of maths up to 18, which makes it one of the least numerate countries in the 38 OECD advanced economies

Over 8 million adults have numeracy skills below those expected of a 9-year-old and around a third of young people fail to pass GCSE maths in the UK, Downing Street says.

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Before an audience made up of students, teachers, education experts and business leaders, Mr Sunak is expected to say: “We’ve got to change this anti-maths mindset. We’ve got to start prizing numeracy for what it is – a key skill every bit as essential as reading.

“I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it’s OK to be bad at maths to put our children at a disadvantage.

“My campaign to transform our national approach to maths is not some nice-to-have. It’s about changing how we value maths in this country”.

The PM first made his pledge maths till 18 pledge in January, pointing to the importance of numeracy skills in jobs which are to which are increasingly led by statistics and data, though he acknowledged that the move may not be achieved in this Parliament.

Rishi Sunak says getting more children studying maths will help grow the economy
Rishi Sunak says getting more children studying maths will help grow the economy. Picture: Getty

But experts dismissed the announcement of the plans as "vague" and "out of touch", warning that it failed to confront deeper issues in the education system, including severe teacher shortages.

Others accused the former Chancellor using the pledge to distract from an on-going Government row with teaching unions over pay.

But on Monday, Mr Sunak will reaffirm his commitment to the move, arguing that attainment in maths will be beneficial to the careers of young people and will ultimately help grow the economy.

“We simply cannot allow poor numeracy to cost our economy tens of billions a year or to leave people twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy," he will say.

“We have to fundamentally change our education system so it gives our young people the knowledge and skills they need – and that our businesses need – to compete with the best in the world.”

The Prime Minister will acknowledge that the change won't happen “overnight”, and an advisory group which will include mathematicians, education leaders and business representatives will be created to advise ministers.

The review will consider what maths content pupils will be required to learn, and whether or not a new maths qualification will need to be introduced.

“We’ll need to recruit and train the maths teachers," Mr Sunak will say, "We’ll need to work out how to harness technology to support them.

Students working together in maths lesson in secondary school
Students working together in maths lesson in secondary school. Picture: Alamy

“And we’ll need to make sure this maths is additional to other subjects – not instead of them. But we are taking the first step today by identifying the maths content that will give our 16 to 18-year-olds the skills they need to get on in life.”

He will also commit to bringing in a "voluntary and fully funded qualification" for primary school maths teachers, and an expansion of maths hubs, which aim to improve the teaching of maths. There are 40 such hubs in England at present.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the PM should focus on ending the pay dispute with reachers, rather than “re-announcing a vague and poorly thought-out policy”.

“It is hard to understand why the Prime Minister is rehashing his ambition of maths to 18 having only announced this policy in January and with no further detail of what it will entail or how it will be delivered.

“It 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.

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“These severe shortages directly undermine the Prime Minister’s ambition because it means there are not enough maths teachers to deliver even the existing requirements let alone extend maths to every pupil to the age of 18.”

Labour shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “Once again, the Prime Minister needs to show his working: he cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers.

“But after 13 years of failing our children, the Tory government repeatedly misses their target for new maths teachers, with maths attainment gaps widening and existing teachers leaving in their droves.

“Labour does not need a new advisory group to make the right choices for our children. We will drive up standards in every corner of our country by investing in thousands more teachers, including maths teachers, by ending tax breaks for private schools.”

Sam Sims, CEO of the charity National Numeracy, said: “Addressing poor numeracy needs to start much earlier than 16. We need a cradle to career vision for numeracy in the UK.”

While president of the Royal Society Sir Adrian Smith, said the PM's commitment was “reassuring to see" as “more still needs to be done” to make courses such like core maths "and mathematics skills, in general, widely available and appealing to students".