Rishi Sunak has said his compulsory maths plan will not involve forcing students in England to study maths A-level, giving no guarantees changes would be made before the next election and admitting the country needed time to recruit more maths teachers.
Speaking at the London Screen Academy in Islington, Sunak mounted a robust defence of the policy, saying it was his personal passion to change the “anti-maths mindset” that made it acceptable to joke about having poor numeracy.
But the prime minister admitted there were already problems in the current levels of maths teaching, including a shortage of teachers and about a third of young people already unable to pass maths GCSE.
“I am not saying the answer is A-level maths for everyone,” he said, without committing to whether young people would even be examined on the extension of maths education.
“But we do need to work out the maths our young people should study. So we’re going to look at what 16- to 18-year-olds around the world are learning. And we’re going to listen to employers and ask them what they say the maths skills are that they need.
“That will not be A-level maths for all. And let me also be clear that we’re not going to deliver this change overnight. We’re going to need to recruit and train the maths teachers. We’re going to work out how to harness technology that we need to support them.
“And we’ll need to make sure this maths is additional to other subjects – not instead of them.”
Sunak suggested that the maths he was expecting to be taught until 18 would focus on practical skills and personal finance, but the content of additional maths lessons – and whether it would be an official qualification – will be determined by a new advisory group, comprising of mathematicians, education leaders and business representatives.
The group is expected to report back in July, in what Sunak said would be 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.”
Sunak was also challenged on how the sector could recruit the necessary maths teachers – with almost half of all secondary schools using non-specialist teachers for maths. In response, Sunak was able to only point to the existing incentives, without pointing to the salary gap between more lucrative careers for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) graduates compared with teaching.
“We will need more maths teachers and we know that,” he said, pointing to tax-free training bursaries and extra salary incentives for teachers in areas with the worst shortages.
But he added: “We’ve got work to do there and when we come back with a more detailed implementation plan for this, we’ll be able to look at what does that mean for future maths teaching. But I also think it’s not just about money, as we change the culture and more people study maths, it will be a virtuous circle and there’ll be a bigger pool of people to … teach the subjects.”
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The prime minister denied the policy was a distraction to more pressing tasks of addressing NHS strikes and the cost of living crisis.
“If we are going to grow our economy not just over the next two years, but the next 20, 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 said.
“So, 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.”
He said he was determined to redress the balance in eduction after advances had been made on literacy. “We make jokes about not being able to do maths. It’s socially acceptable. We say things like: ‘Oh, maths, I can’t do that, it’s not for me’ – and everyone laughs. But we’d never make a joke like that about not being able to read. So we’ve got to change this anti-maths mindset.”