Does Rishi Sunak's plan to make maths compulsory until age 18 add up?

British Prime Minister's proposal fuels debate about whether pupils in England should be forced to stick with 'tough' subjects

Pupils in Europe and North America rank below those in Asia when it comes to maths and science. Reuters
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A plan by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make all pupils in England study maths until the age of 18 may spark groans among many pupils.

But experts say there are many benefits to making the subject compulsory, although it must be made relevant to children who otherwise would chose to drop it.

The proposal was outlined by Mr Sunak in his first speech of the year. It does not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, which set their own education policies.

People now live "in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, letting our children out into that world without those skills is letting our children down", he said.

That so many adults are not confident with personal finances and mortgages is a concern, he said.

Students should have some ownership over what they study, but making tough subjects like mathematics or science optional leads to disadvantaged students dropping out
Andreas Schleicher, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Half of pupils in England between the ages of 16 and 19 study maths, including those taking science, with many dropping standalone maths earlier.

On average, pupils in Europe and North America rank far below those in Asia, particularly China, Singapore and Hong Kong, along with Russia, when it comes to maths and science.

The situation has created a profound and looming challenge in the age of artificial intelligence and coding.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said its survey of adult skills indicated that knowledge and skills in maths were "the best predictor for people’s success at work and even beyond".

“While I am generally in favour of teaching fewer things in greater depth, I believe that learning mathematics until 18 is indispensable," he told The National.

“One can argue that students should have some ownership over what they study, but making tough subjects like mathematics or science optional is likely to lead to disadvantaged students dropping out, which will only amplify social divides.”

Why focus on 16 to 18 year olds?

Dr Steven Watson, an associate professor at the University of Cambridge’s faculty of education, questioned why the government was focused on pupils in their final years of school, rather than younger pupils.

"It is unclear why initiatives are not planned for primary school, where numeracy interventions are more likely to be effective," he said.

On paper, Mr Sunak’s proposal seems to be a good idea, according to Dr Dave Hewitt, who leads maths teacher-training courses at Loughborough University in the UK.

"We are one of the few countries that doesn’t have our students carrying on with some mathematics up until that sort of age," he said.

But he highlighted the "large shortage" of maths teachers in the country and said fewer institutions were being accredited to train maths teachers.

Another problem is the curriculum.

"You will have students who maybe don’t feel very pleased they’re being forced to study mathematics. There’s got to be a very relevant curriculum to them so they see a point to this," he said.

How maths is taught in the best-performing countries

In China and in Russia, considerable effort is put into helping primary school pupils to understand the "language of maths" when their brains are malleable and alert.

In Shanghai, some pupils begin to learn multiplication in Grade 2, when pupils are about seven.

The curriculum is a nine-year programme that takes pupils on a journey of learning, with up to 15 hours of maths every week, once homework is factored in.

The result is a pupil who is far more comfortable with figures and problem solving — although critics say this can come at the cost of creativity and freedom of thought.

In Russian schools, pupils are taught to be comfortable facing complex equations and there is a lot of focus on creating a conversation around how to tackle subjects including algebra.

Real-world examples

Another approach is using as many real-world examples as possible.

Dr Hewitt said pupils were currently asked to remember processes and reproduce them in an exam, without an emphasis on understanding.

"That can turn children off mathematics because they don’t understand what they’re being asked to do. They’re following a process," he said.

"That won’t help them have a positive attitude to mathematics and enjoy it and find it enlightening and helpful for them."

Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said that by teaching everyday maths that can be used in banking, personal finances, "the idea is to actually make maths more connected to daily life".

She said pupils must be allowed to select subjects they were passionate about, but schools had to teach foundation skills, including literacy and numeracy.

International Baccalaureate model

While pupils studying the British curriculum can drop maths and science at the age of about 14, other models ensure pupils stick with numerical subjects, training the brain for challenges at university level.

“In a lot of highly respected curriculums such as the International Baccalaureate, that is a standard expectation already that pupils have to continue with a level of maths throughout the secondary school and so it wouldn't be unusual to adopt that approach,” said Glen Radojkovich, deputy director of the UAE education provider Taaleem.

Ann Starkie, who runs AS Careers, a consultancy in the UK, said she was aware of the difficulties people experienced if they did not have a basic qualification in maths.

University courses in the UK typically require a student to have a Grade 4 or above GCSE qualification, or a grade of equal value, to enrol, regardless of the subject they want to study.

"I have adults coming to me who don’t have maths GCSE and they want to get into university or another profession later on. They have to go back and do their GCSE," she said.

Some students may also have to retake a science GCSE if want to train to be a nurse.

"Other countries are using different formats — online and YouTube — making maths more understandable. We’re doing very traditional learning. I think it needs to be … dramatically changed," Ms Starkie said.

Updated: January 05, 2023, 9:25 AM