Rishi Sunak and the importance of maths

Prime minister wants mandatory maths lessons until the age of 18, but critics say the policy doesn’t add up

School Pupil
Eight million UK adults have the mathematical ability of a primary school pupil
(Image credit: 2015 Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak has promised a radical shake-up to the way maths is taught in English schools with the introduction of mandatory lessons until the age of 18.

In a major speech by the prime minister outlining his priorities for the year ahead, Sunak announced his intention to make all students in England study maths in some form until they are 18. The idea though “appears to be an aspiration rather than a fully developed policy, with the precise mechanics for how it would work not set out”, said the BBC.

Sunak said the UK must “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. He went on: “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.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The announcement is a “drive to boost low numeracy rates”, said the i news site’s Arj Singh, and a response to the finding that currently eight million adults across the country possess the mathematical ability of a primary school pupil.

‘Why maths?’

Labour questioned the importance of the move at a time when the country is facing other more serious problems. “No.10 have revealed they have nothing to offer the country except double maths,” a Labour source said.

The UK is already playing catch-up in relation to other nations. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway and the US already require students to study maths to 18.

Education “has always been close to Sunak’s political heart”, said Freddie Hayward in The New Statesman. “But the political advantages of the policy are minimal.”

For one thing, “the policy doesn’t reflect voters’ priorities”. When former prime minister Tony Blair announced his pursuit of “education, education, education” during his first term in office, around 30-40% of voters placed the issue at the top of their list of priorities, Hayward noted. “Now the figure is around 10%.”

According to The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman, the overriding reaction in Westminster to Sunak’s move is “why maths?”. But the answer may be a simple one: “a similar approach worked for literacy”. Yet obvious questions remain, Hardman said, including how to recruit more maths teachers.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also emphasised the importance of having a recruitment plan in place. “It is important that this is based on solid research and is not a pet project,” he said. “We would want to hear how such a policy would avoid exacerbating the already chronic national shortage of maths teachers.”

Sunak ‘needs to show his working’

Sunak has admitted that a reform as large as this is likely to take time, and has only committed to its introduction by the election after next, which is expected to be in 2029.

The timescale for the policy itself “risks raising questions about whether [Sunak] will ever see the plans through”, said Singh on the i news site, especially given the Conservatives’ roughly 20-point deficit to Labour in the polls.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the prime minister “needs to show his working”. “He cannot deliver this reheated, empty pledge without more maths teachers, yet the government has missed their target for new maths teachers year after year, with existing teachers leaving in their droves.”

According to LBC radio presenter Nick Ferrari, rather than Sunak trying to teach the nation to count, “maybe he needs to be lecturing a couple of his former close colleagues, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss – their grip on maths didn’t seem that crash hot did it?”, said HuffPost.

While improving numeracy may help the country in the long term, it is unlikely to solve the prime minister’s current problems, said Hayward in The New Statesman: “By the end of the day, Sunak’s key problem – the absence of a core mission he can sell to the public – won’t have gone away.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.