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‘Maths for all’ is just the start of a debate about the 16-18 curriculum - Eddie Playfair

12 January 2023

Eddie Playfair – Senior Policy Manager, AoC

Last week, prime minister Rishi Sunak committed the government to “a new ambition of ensuring that all school pupils in England study some form of maths to the age of 18” and it’s fair to say the initiative got a mixed response. Some commentators saw this as a vicious attack by robot bean counters on all that is humanistic and creative in education, others saw it as a brazen attempt to divert attention from some of the country’s more intractable problems. But when a prime minister chooses to put the curriculum near the top of their priority list, we surely need to take it seriously and examine what’s being said.

The case is strong, as the prime minister says: “we need to equip young people with the quantitative and statistical skills that they need”. You don’t have to be a desiccated calculating machine to recognise that data is everywhere, and that mathematical thinking is needed more than ever.

Rishi Sunak’s first major intervention on education since entering office flows from a commitment to ensuring that young people acquire the right skills in both numeracy and literacy, suggesting that the job is done in literacy, while improving numeracy is unfinished business. But all those 16–18-year-olds who haven’t yet achieved at least a grade 4 in GCSE maths (and English) are already required to study both, and many of them are not A Level students.

It’s also worth noting that over 90 per cent of those retakers are being taught in colleges rather than schools. The maths heavy lifting is being done in the FE sector and it’s a challenge which colleges are rising to, despite underfunding and maths teacher shortages.

So far, the proposal is a little short on detail, but the statement helpfully specified that the government does not envisage making A-level maths compulsory for everyone. The fact this even had to be said shows how far from reality we were at the start of his important debate, and among A level students maths is already the most popular subject.

It’s good to hear that the government wants to explore current routes, such as the excellent Core Maths qualification, as well as other options, which could include the innovative modular GCSE proposed by Nuffield-MEI designed to help students build incrementally on their success. A lot can also be learned from the work of the government-funded Centres for Excellence Maths project, where colleges have been developing new ways to engage and motivate students and build their confidence, mastery and fluency with maths.

The PM notes that “the UK remains one of the only countries in the world to not to require children to study some form of maths up to the age of 18”. Boris Johnson, one of his recent predecessors, was shocked in November 2021 by “the astonishing fact that the 16- to 18-year-olds in this country are getting 40% less time and instruction than our competitors in the OECD.” These things are connected, and we can’t have a rich and broad full-time curriculum for a bargain basement funding rate which barely pays for 17 hours a week of teaching.

However, we should resist the temptation to turn every social problem into a new task for education. As the spotlight falls on each of these one by one, a case can be made that young people must all be taught this or that important subject to solve the problem. These would be piecemeal additions; many of them doomed to fail without the necessary investment and capacity.

Instead, we should be discussing the gaping deficit in the English 16-19 curriculum. Most young people in England have a uniquely thin experience and there is no core general educational entitlement for everyone. Not only do many post-16 students not have to study maths or English at all, but there is also no requirement to learn more about their health, their society, history and culture, the global crises we face and the political and economic processes which shape our world. Could we not envisage coherent Personal and Social Education guarantee to address this for all 16–18-year-olds?

Rather than focusing on one subject at a time, perhaps we should be trying to define what every young person should learn about up to 19, to enhance their chosen study programme and give them strong foundations for lifelong learning and citizenship. The debate about maths for all is a welcome start, but maybe it’s time to be more ambitious.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.