Lunchtime debate: What do you think about Maths to 18?

Rishi Sunak is setting out plans to force everyone in England to study Maths until they are 18.

The BBC quotes the PM:

In a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before,” he will say.

And letting our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down.

Just half of 16 to 19-year-olds study maths, according to Mr Sunak – but this figure includes pupils doing science courses and those who are already doing compulsory GCSE resits in college.

Apparently no new qualifications are planned, and students will not be forced to do the A Level, so this seems at the moment to be more soundbite than policy. It’s designed to appeal to older Conservative voters who think that education has gone to the dogs since they stopped making you recite your times tables every morning.

I was thrilled to be able to ditch Maths for my final year at school, but I had to do the Scottish Higher in 5th year (when I was 17). I managed to scrape a B for my Higher, but it was pure hell. While I was always good at arithmetic, I really struggled with Calculus and anything other fairly basic Trigonometry and Geometry. Forcing me to take Maths for an extra year, when I was going to be studying languages and social sciences would have been completely counter-productive.

I am all for encouraging numeracy and analytical skills, especially in girls, but it seems to me that a one size fits all policy wouldn’t work. For some people, forcing them to study Maths all the way through school might be at the expense of a qualification that enhances their career and life chances.

Our education spokesperson Munira Wilson said that the Government’s plan was an admission of failure to lay the proper foundations:

This is an admission of failure from the Prime Minister on behalf of a Conservative Government that has neglected our children’s education so badly. Too many children are being left behind when it comes to maths, and that happens well before they reach 16.
The Prime Minister’s words mean nothing without the extra funding and staff to make it happen. You don’t need a maths A-Level to know it takes more teachers to teach maths to age 18 than to 16. But schools are already struggling with a shortage of maths teachers, and the Conservatives have no plan to turn that around.
If Rishi Sunak is serious about reversing the Conservatives’ awful record on numeracy, he should start by cancelling the planned cuts to early years education and come forward with a real plan to recruit and retain the teachers we need.
What do you think?


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Andrew Emmerson 4th Jan '23 - 1:33pm

    I’m taking a two-branch thought process for this. The likelihood of this succeeding is close to nil. The government has neither the political capital, will or imagination to force through such reforms. I doubt we are in danger of them becoming reality this electoral term.

    I’m also concerned what is missing from the debate is the acknowledgment that maths has a lot of transferrable skills, many more so than related subjects. Of course, trigonometry isn’t going to serve many in their day-to-day life, but neither is the concept of pathetic fallacy in English, but I would very much imagine changing English for Maths would invite a far less severe reaction.

    I don’t think on balance it should be extended as a standalone subject, but there likely could be a much stronger focus on mental arithmetic and basic maths throughout other subjects that would probably serve education better.

  • Helen Dudden 4th Jan '23 - 1:34pm

    Having worked in Teacher Staffing for sometime I applaud learning. But not every child is an academic.
    My education consisted of music, cookery, art and pottery. Boys learnt wood work. Not forgetting maths and English. Life Skills have a use in every day life.
    In my final year Business Studies were added.
    We also had a cooked lunch, not that bad in quality and quantity on a cold day.

  • Ruth Bright 4th Jan '23 - 2:34pm

    Has Layla Moran commented on this? She did a fantastic Newscast interview about how she taught Maths to reluctant students. Compelling.

  • David Langshaw 4th Jan '23 - 3:32pm

    Be careful! This is a Conservative government we are talking about here, and one that is desperate to distract from the myriad problems it has caused. So, do they mean “maths”, or do they mean numeracy? That might be useful (indeed, essential) for some, but other 18 year olds, such as those wanting to study the social sciences, might be better off getting to grips with the rudiments of statistics. The history of mathematics (with its overtones of philosophy) might benefit those looking to study arts subjects at university, but it doesn’t require any manipulation of numerical data – just an enquiring mind and a bit of application. Somehow, I doubt if Sunak & Co. would be remotely interested in anything that didn’t appear to be “practical” – so the beauty of pure mathematics is unlikely to be on offer, other than to those already interested in the subject. Personally, I think it would be useful for some sort of mathematical training to continue well beyond 18 – but there’s a lot more to maths than calculation.

  • Barry Lofty 4th Jan '23 - 4:14pm

    The more I think about Mr Sunaks statement regarding compulsory maths until students are 18, the more I realise that it is just another headline grabbing ploy to distract attention away from the awful plight our country finds itself in here and now. Sadly correcting our problems will not be as easy to solve as the usual politicians rhetoric, you only have to look back at the recent incumbents in No10 to know that?

  • Neil Hickman 4th Jan '23 - 5:16pm

    There’s a certain irony in the Government wanting to extend numeracy (I’m sure David Langshaw is correct) when they have changed the voting system for mayoral elections “because the supplementary vote was too complicated “ i.e. because it required Daily Mail readers to count up to two.

  • I’m certain this is a distraction tactic from Sunak, but as he’s raised the subject, my views are along the lines of Munira and the maths teacher’s Ian listened to.

    I was disappointed to see many people reacting to today’s news along the lines of ‘I hated/was rubbish at maths because I’m creative’, or talk of maths being bean counting, or something that computers can do for us, combining ignorance with a kind of snobbery not dissimilar to Russel Brand claiming that he was too artistic to take responsibility for the less glamorous aspects of looking after his own baby.

    As Munira says, the problems of poor numeracy and attitudes to numeracy are established long before children turn 16 and there should be more emphasis on integrating the understanding and presentation of quantitative information across subjects, including English.

    I’d never advocate a skills test before people could vote, but I do think the country would be better off if politicians didn’t know they could get away with so much. Most people should be able to understand simple statistics and make sense of probability and risk, enough to spot a Daily Mail style health scare story even when it’s in one of the supposedly sensible papers. They should instantly notice a politician giving inadequate information, how to present data well and how to make sense of badly presented data, how to calculate how much tax they should pay, how much a loan will cost and make sense of simple accounts.

  • Peter Davies 4th Jan '23 - 7:40pm

    We should be targeting standards that everyone needs to achieve rather than an age at which to finish. Some are giving up maths at 16 while still functionally innumerate and a much larger number with an inadequate grasp of important skills like basic stats but others have got the maths they need by then and should be able to choose other areas of interest.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Jan '23 - 8:35pm

    “We should be targeting standards that everyone needs to achieve rather than an age at which to finish”
    Yes. Children develop at different speeds.

    We talk (sometimes) about lifelong education but in practice it seems all too many only get one chance and if they haven’t reached the required standard by the designated age they’re sunk.

  • Diana Simpson 5th Jan '23 - 8:36am

    I’m all for making sure teenagers learn life skills such as how to fill in a tax return, how to be able to assess and compare £s per kilo versus pence per gram when shopping etc. but, as a retired primary school teacher, I know that money spent on maths support in early years education is the best way to bring up standards.

  • David Goble 5th Jan '23 - 9:10am

    Is the PM talking about mathematics as a science subject or about numeracy, or, more simply, arithmetic? Maths, at school, to me, was a nightmare; in my life in the Army and then as a Civil Servant, I have continually used arithmetic to calculate the likely cost of an interest increase on my mortgage and the likely net increase as the result of a pay award.
    A little more clarity would have been useful.

  • Nigel Quinton 5th Jan '23 - 9:43am

    Firstly it is obviously vacuous nonsense in search of a cheap headline and distracting from all the other failures. Secondly, as Peter Davies says we should be targeting minimum standards of maths comprehension, not worrying about the age to which the subject is taught. I have a brother and his wife working in further education, who complain about the lack of understanding of their students of basic maths skills. They posed the question why our maths syllabus seems to be failing – I’d be interested to hear from maths teachers what they think about how to improve matters.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '23 - 10:27am

    I agree with Mohammed Amin. Like him I have an A level (actually two if you count Further Maths) in Maths. I went on to study Physics at uni which is highly mathematical in itself and required maths to be at a subsidiary subject.

    I’ve really no idea why anyone doesn’t like it 🙂 However, forcing unwilling students to study something is never a good idea. Rishi believes in markets, and the price mechanism, so why doesn’t he offer some financial incentive? One way would be in some financial support for students to study approved subjects such as mathematics, the sciences, engineering subjects, medicine etc at university.

  • Without further information on both the reasoning and implementation, I really don’t see the point of this exercise. If someone reaches 16 without a suitable level of mathematical ability for everyday life, then the system has failed. If people are turned off maths, despite having the aptitude, then the system has failed. If people are aiming for careers or interests that require maths, they will highly likely to be studying maths beyond GCSE anyway.

    Disclaimer: I enjoyed maths at school, and slightly regret not taking it to A-Level. I ended up having to do a crash course on the maths needed for my Physics and Chemistry A-Levels (I took Art as my other subject), and then had to do another course covering a similar subset of A-Level maths at university as part of a computing degree. I’ve never needed to us any of what I learnt post-GCSE outside of academia, and I work as a software developer.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Jan '23 - 11:58am

    “If someone reaches 16 without a suitable level of mathematical ability for everyday life, then the system has failed.”
    This is the key issue – ensuring all are equipped for everyday life.

  • Jason Connor 5th Jan '23 - 12:07pm

    There are some very inspirational and enthusiastic teachers out there. So give them the chance to prove how exciting Maths can be until age 18, whatever people’s background or level.

  • Peter Martin 5th Jan '23 - 1:56pm

    @ Jason,

    Maths is only fun and exciting if you can do it. My own experience is that I could do most of it after a bit of effort, but I always really struggled with Statistics and Stochastic Processes. The latter can be defined as: A family
    of random variables {Xθ}, indexed by a parameter θ, where θ belongs
    to some index set Θ.

    Even I can see why this is never going to be exciting and fun to most people.

    If anyone is still not up to what we might be termed a required standard by the age of 16, compelling anyone to do another two years isn’t likely to improve matters much, if at all. The inspirational and enthusiastic teachers you mention might be slightly less inspirational and enthusiastic after what could be a traumatic experience for them. If you don’t know what I mean try teaching a group of disaffected teenagers!

    They would better employed teaching either younger pupils or older students in Night schools and Further Education colleges. Remember them? The idea is that adults might choose to have another try to improve their education but as volunteers not conscripts.

  • Jason Connor 5th Jan '23 - 3:47pm

    Those statistics sound challenging but interesting. I was pretty useless at Maths but managed to pass my exams because I had such a good teacher who motivated us disaffected students. To me that was an achievement in itself. That’s what makes the difference. There are plenty of decent teachers out there who can make these subjects interesting, relevant and current if taught in the right way and they should be embraced. Literacy and numeracy are still taught into adulthood and quite successfully often funded by local government but I realise much of it has been cut back.

  • Peter Martin 7th Jan '23 - 9:29am

    “There are plenty of decent teachers out there who can make these subjects interesting, relevant and current if taught in the right way and they should be embraced.”

    Maybe not in maths though?

    It’s been like this as long as I can remember. You were lucky if you had a good maths teacher. Good maths teachers aren’t simply teachers who themselves are good at maths. They have to be able to appreciate why what seems easy and straightforward to them isn’t the same to others. We are always going to be short of these exceptional people and we shouldn’t be asking what few of them we do have to do the impossible in the classroom. They will burn out and find some other way of earning a living.

  • Mick Taylor 7th Jan '23 - 9:41am

    I was a math’s teacher for 13 years. I taught 13-18 year olds and many of them had already had their negative view of maths fixed in their minds, quite often from their parents. Occasionally, I had a few groups of pupils who really wanted to do well and with them math’s teaching was a real joy and they came on in leaps and bounds.
    The UK psyche has a negative view of maths that is deeply engrained and before we can even begin to insist pupils take maths from 16-18 we have to tackle the negative view that is widely propagated especially in England.
    However gifted teachers are, teaching maths to pupils, who instinctively believe it is too hard and not necessary for their futures, will continue to fail.
    That’s the real problem and the PM has totally failed to grasp it.

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