Maths reforms – the argument that the Conservatives (and we) should be making!

£20 Billion per year or 1.3% of our GDP is nothing to be sniffed at. That means, in real terms, more jobs staying in the UK, a more competitive economy and a scenario where we aspire to more from our young people. This is something to be admired.

A two minute conversation with the standard Liberal Democrat campaigner will tell you that we are not exactly fond of the Conservatives, with their politicisation of human rights issues, woeful running of the economy and the lowering of our standards in public life, those are just some of the many reasons why.

However, where we should agree in principle, is with the Maths reforms. Our population is functionally innumerate and, large parts functionally illiterate, for one of the largest economies in the world, that is a damning indictment on the United Kingdom, it is also a legacy of low standards in education that existed under Major.

Let’s look at the detail we know about:
– A funded qualification for early years and primary teachers. The Liberal Democrats agree with this. But leave aside our party-political approach to it, we have a maths teacher shortage, properly upskilling other teachers is a partial and quick solution to a longer-term problem.
– An increase in maths provision from 16 to 18. Leave aside criticisms about the lack of teachers, no one serious has suggested that A Level Maths is becoming compulsory. What the Liberal Democrats should be pushing for, is a wider recognition that our curriculum subjects is too narrow. We should therefore focus on improving the range on offer within post-16 qualifications, shifting focus to practical maths within these subjects.
– This is just finishing what we started. In coalition, the Liberal Democrats supported those who had not achieved a “C” grade in their GCSE maths, to have to sit it post 16 until they passed it. With the new GCSEs, the pass mark is a 4/9 but the policy remains the same. Given we support minimum maths standards, why would we shy away from increasing those minimum standards.

We know that the plans are not perfect, but for once, I think Rishi Sunak is trying to do a good thing and improve life chances for young people across our country. Surely the least we can do is be a critical friend of the reforms.

Our political approach to the Prime Minister’s policy proposal should be simple:

– We support high standards and agree in principle with the reforms but want to see them work well.
– We need more funding for maths teachers to make the plan work well.
– This should be one of a number of wider post-16 reforms to make our education system fit for the 21st Century.

Please, do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s be critical friends, not reflexive opponents of these reforms.

* Callum Robertson is a teacher and former Chair of the Young Liberals

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Mel Borthwaite 18th Apr '23 - 5:39pm

    The fundamental problem with maths is that students are only able to learn secondary school level maths if that have already mastered the basics at primary school – and far too many haven’t done so by the time they transfer. Part of this is due to the fact that people can become primary school teachers in England with very low levels of maths proficiency – a totally inadequate basis to enable them to teach maths well. A second factor is the tendency in primary school to not require pupils to learn basic things – like knowing their times-tables so they can instantly recall answers – as part of an approach to education that places more emphasis on ensuring pupils to not experience failure or stress than on ensuring they learn how to learn essential skills and knowledge.
    My suggestion – rather than putting the emphasis on all pupil achieving a level of maths at GCSE, how about requiring that primary schools are required to ensure that all pupils achieve a set level of mathematical competence while in primary school, focusing on appropriate remediation as necessary? That will allow secondary schools to achieve good levels of maths attainment for all.

  • What about reintroducing the teaching of English Grammar? Far too many people say “Me and you” instead of “You and I”, “There is” instead of “There are”.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Apr '23 - 8:22pm

    @Mel Borthwaite
    “how about requiring that primary schools are required to ensure that all pupils achieve a set level of mathematical competence while in primary school”

    What would that mean in practice? I ask because I see maths as being the ability to analyse and solve problems (important life skills) rather than simply the ability to add, subtract etc. And shouldn’t a major objective be that primary school pupils actually enjoy maths and want to carry on learning it

  • Mel Borthwaite 19th Apr '23 - 7:19am

    “What would that mean in practice.”
    In practice, it would mean that primary schools would be expected to assess whether pupils had mastered the maths they had been taught and, if not, to provide appropriate remediation until success is achieved. This would require a change of culture since, at present, primary schools tend to report on what has been taught and content/skills that have been ‘covered’ rather than what has been mastered. It would also mean that primary schools would have to ensure that pupils who missed maths lessons though absence would have a second, or third opportunity to be taught the maths they may have missed so no gaps in maths learning were created by attendance challenges.

  • David Goble 19th Apr '23 - 8:27am

    I get confused by all this talk about “mathematics”!

    I was, to be frank, bored stupid in maths lessons at school; I haven’t felt the need to use a simultaneous or quadratic equation since the various mathematics master attempted to teach me what they were! Neither have I felt the need to describe the various kinds of triangle, another element of the subject that they tried to teach me.

    I have, however, used arithmetic every day of my life. I can, as a result, usually work out my tax responsibilities, and, in the days when I had a mortgage, was able to work out what effect the various interest rate increases would have on my income, usually to £3 or £4 per month.

    There is talk of people who leave school being “innumerate”; I ask, again, are we talking about arithmetic, geometry or algebra?

  • Peter Davies 19th Apr '23 - 8:54am

    Innumeracy should just refer to arithmetic.

    Apart from that, the area where a lack of understanding costs people most is probably statistics including basic probability theory. Boolean logic is also widely (though not explicitly) used and often misunderstood.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Apr '23 - 9:05am

    @David Goble
    “There is talk of people who leave school being “innumerate”; I ask, again, are we talking about arithmetic, geometry or algebra?”

    I agree that arithmetic is the mostly likely part of maths for people to use in adulthood. But in terms of practical problems the others you mentioned – and also trigonometry – can also be useful.

    Shouldn’t these maths concepts be introduced to pupils in terms of problems which one or more of these concepts might be useful in solving? Making maths practical instead of wrote learning of how to do it – without any context?

    (Writing as being far too old to know what goes on in school maths teaching these days.)

  • Steve Trevethan 19th Apr '23 - 11:41am

    If this more than a “headline grabber” it is to be encouraged.
    Might the factors in mathematical enjoyment and competence include the following?
    1) Student interest and enthusiasm
    2) Curriculum interest/excitement and flexibility
    3) Teacher skills, confidence and competence
    4) We’ll maintained, motivating places of learning, including home
    5) Non monopolistic forms of assessment
    6) General societal interest in and enthusiasm for mathematics in its wondrous width and depth
    7) Much greater use of devices to minimise computational drudgery

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Apr '23 - 11:57am

    ” an approach to education that places more emphasis on ensuring pupils to not experience failure or stress ”

    When I was at primary school, many years ago, we recited the times tables regularly. They were written on the wall, so all one had to do was read it off. Do that every day for a year, and you’re likely to know them. Without any risk of failure or stress.

  • I agree with most of what’s already been said. A good, solid understanding of the basics at primary school is required, and that means an understanding of using it to solve problems, at primary school is required.

    I don’t know the current requirements, but it was obvious to Primary 7 me, that I understood P7 maths better than my P7 teacher (in Scotland). She was normally very composed and brought learning of other subjects to life, but I still have a distinct memory of her anxiously trying to teach us how to multiply fractions, making a mess of it, and her rising panic as it all went wrong, never to be mentioned again.

    Primary school teachers have a wide remit, and it’s unrealistic to expect them all to have engineering level maths, but they need to be competent and comfortable teaching it to the level required, or get in someone who can do it. Getting in specialists at teaching maths risks underlining the idea that maths is optional, but it’s better than leaving kids confused and terrified of it.

    Otherwise numerate people often lack the basic statistical skills to spot the key and/or missing information from advertisers and politicians. I’d like more emphasis on how data is framed, can be used to mislead and how to ask the right questions to hold power to account.

  • Jenny Barnes 19th Apr '23 - 1:46pm

    new math:
    “tomorrow night we’re going to do fractions”

  • If you’re not using algebra in your daily life, you’re likely missing a trick (or at least finding it harder & lengthier to solve everyday problems). But I do agree we need to de-mystify this & make it clear & practical to engage students

  • I agree with many here, the root of the problem and solution are Primary Schools (and parents). Which takes us back to the debate some years back about free breakfast and dinners for ALL Primary school children.
    Whilst I understand many here and in probably in the Conservative party are focusing on “pupils achieve a set level of mathematical competence” by a specific educational stage, I would add this needs to be balanced with maths being a skill for life and thus also needs to be engaging, enjoyable and relevant. So that whilst a child may not achieve a particular yardstick at a particular point in their education they are not put off by the thought of maths is boring, so that the pool of people wishing to study maths at GCSE and beyond is greatly enlarged.

    From my experience of Youth sports coaching, I think there are lessons that schools can learn from sports coaching, particularly from those sports organisations who whilst are primarily there to develop future Olympic athletes also see their role as building grass roots enjoyment of their sport as a leisure activity.

  • I completely agree Roland. Start with maths as a skill for life, that if taught well will be engaging and relevant.

    Some kids will go onto learn what could be described as ‘advanced maths’, and hopefully a decent chunk as that is required for a lot of the jobs that help society function, but those who aren’t going into those jobs still need to have good maths skills relevant to their own lives, and to fully take part in society.

    The current system abandons those that cannot keep up with the expected rate of learning (for whatever reason), and whereas it would be better to put more effort into ensuring all children reach key milestones eventually, with extra effort to help those that might otherwise be left behind. Agreed that free breakfasts, dinners & other non academic support has a role.

  • Steve Trevethan 19th Apr '23 - 4:40pm

    Might it be the case that if Mr Sunak is really determined to raise standards of mathematical enterprise and skills, he will have to allocate (much) more to the educational infrastructure of our country, perhaps in the way that H M G put so much into the banking infrastructure around 2008?

  • Jason Connor 19th Apr '23 - 6:07pm

    Primary teacher training is quite rigorous. You don’t have to be an expert in Maths to teach it at primary school level. It’s a bit like you can coach football and take an FA course without being a footballer. The skills needed to teach this subject at primary school level are very different to secondary school. The key is to make Maths more relevant to everyday life, make it accessible and teach it in creative ways which appeals more to primary age classes and stimulates interest in the subject.

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