Should everyone study maths to 18?

In his first speech of 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he was looking at plans to ensure that all students study maths in some form until the age of 18. It’s fair to say that his announcement was light on detail. He did not say what this would look like; he did not say what (if any) qualification students would be studying towards; he did not say how this would be delivered. Even more worryingly, he did not say who would teach it: there is already a shortage of maths teachers nationally, and the government has missed its own target for recruiting trainee teachers (not just in maths) year on year.

His announcement also seemed to lack a rationale. Currently, students who do not get a grade 4 or above in GCSE maths are required to continue with the subject until they get the grade 4 – so these students already do maths post-16. Many students take A-level maths or further maths in the Sixth Form – it is one of the most popular subjects on offer. And still more students take Core Maths, a level 3 post-16 qualification designed to provide students with mathematical, statistics and data skills that they will need for study in most subjects and for future employment. This is a really popular option for students at Churchill to support the mathematical content of subjects such as geography, sciences, economics and others.

All of these students already take maths post-16. So, the Prime Minister can’t be talking about them. He must, instead, be talking about students who have already achieved at least a grade 4 in maths – so they have proved they have a good grasp of the subject and are able to perform at a good level – but have decided not to take it further. These are competent mathematicians who have opted not to continue with the subject, and decided to specialise in a different area instead. Why would the Prime Minister feel that this group of students should have to continue with a subject they have “passed” and decided not to take further?

There is no question that maths is important. Nobody would seriously argue that students should be able to drop maths at the age of 11, or 14. It seems perfectly reasonable that all students should study maths, English and science until the age of 16, then decide what to specialise in. There is also some logic to the idea that students who do not pass maths or English at GCSE with at least a grade 4 should continue to study the subject, as the skills of literacy and numeracy are so important to future success and underpin the ability to access so many other subjects and fields.

There will always be a point in the education journey where young people opt for a more specialised, tailored curriculum. In the English system, young people make their first options at 14 for Level 2 qualifications (including GCSE), then specialise further at 16 Level 3 qualifications (including A-levels). Lots of other countries do things differently, with greater breadth or greater specialisation at earlier or later stages. The case could be made that children in England specialise too early, and that we should carry on with a broad curriculum for as long as possible. But, if you want to gain a deep understanding of a subject, you need to spend time on it – and that means specialising. And there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything!

There are plenty of experts in curriculum giving serious thought to a better way of providing breadth and depth in our qualifications system up to the age of 18. The National Baccalaureate Trust published a report in May 2022, following a year-long consultation, with a fascinating proposal for an alternative to our current examination system. ASCL have published proposals for a passport-style qualification in English and maths to take away the cliff-edge pass/fail of GCSE grade 3 and 4 in those subjects. Way back in 2004, the Tomlinson Report proposed wide-ranging reform of 14-19 education to provide a unified framework for curriculum and qualifications – but the Labour government of the time did not have the courage to implement it. If Rishi Sunak wanted to look, there are plenty of credible, thoughtful and workable policy options out there.

I suppose we should be grateful that this Prime Minister sees education as a priority – something that has not been the case for his predecessors. We might have hoped for policies to address a consistently underfunded education system facing an existential recruitment and retention crisis, industrial unrest, serving a cohort of young people working hard to overcome the legacy of the pandemic in a fractured and frightening world where global temperatures continue to rise…but no. We got “everyone needs to do maths till they’re 18” instead. For me, it just didn’t add up.

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