Right diagnoses, wrong solution: why we should be a critical friend of maths until 18

On 4th January, Rishi Sunak announced plans to enforce the study of mathematics until students turned 18. This would be a major departure from current education policy of free subject choice for post-16 students in England.

This was immediately met with criticism from a range of groups, from education professionals who argue that the teacher shortage of maths professionals is just too great to cope with the additional demand, to people who had a bad experience in school with maths. The former problem is one I have substantial sympathy for, the latter is not a credible argument.

If we go beyond the headline and the immediate hyperbolic reaction, the proposal makes sense. Numeric illiteracy rates are costing the United Kingdom around £20 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP according to research by the National Audit Office.

The Prime Minister’s proposal is an attempt to address the knowledge gap large parts of our population have. In this sense it is an exceptionally good idea. We must also combat the policy on what it is. Rishi Sunak has not proposed making students take an additional A Level in Mathematics. Nor has he proposed that it takes the same weighting as any other qualification 16-19 year olds are taking.

What he has proposed is focusing on closing the numeracy gap, something we as liberals should be in favour of. It must also be said that students who score below a “4” grade in their Maths and English GCSEs are subject to a compulsory resit between 16 and 18, so a version of this policy already exists.

Critics of the current maths curriculum call it irrelevant and out of touch. To some extent they are right, you are hard pressed to find a direct link between Pythagoras’ Theorem and your weekly food shop. However, what the study of core maths does is allow people to test their academic abilities and learn problem solving skills.

However, we should focus on the art of the possible. If critics call much of maths irrelevant, let’s make it relevant and reshape our post-16 equivalent to be more mathematically inclined.

This is a practical solution to a very real problem. It additionally pushes for continued applied numeracy beyond 16. to do and works around the current curriculums on offer.

For example, a Politics or History A Level could contain more data analytics questions that rely on data interpretation. This approach to practical numeracy would also have potentially long last effects on maths as a subject, allowing students to see its relevancy in the rest of their subjects.

As an education professional, I would welcome a joined up approach to the curriculum at post-16 level, it would enable my students to gain a breadth as well as a depth of knowledge.

So, rather than opposing the government proposal outright, let us work constructively to try and get a valuable piece of educational reform through.

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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Barry Lofty 5th Jan '23 - 11:09am

    Could it be also be that some teachers lack the ability to enthuse and interest their pupils on this subject, just a thought going on past experience?

  • John Nicholson 5th Jan '23 - 11:49am

    I agree with the balanced response of this article, larger because numeracy (not mathematics per se) is so poor in the general population, and also in the educated. I was horrified when the pandemic was at its height that nobody seemed to care whether things were getting worse or getting better. Anything that involved simple counting was beyond the interest of media stars like Laura Kuenssberg or Robert Peston, as they demonstrated regularly at the daily press conferences. Whether Sunak’s proposals would improve the situation is not clear, but surely it is worth a try?

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Jan '23 - 11:55am

    “Anything that involved simple counting was beyond the interest of media stars like Laura Kuenssberg or Robert Peston, as they demonstrated regularly at the daily press conferences.”
    Kuenssberg degree in History from Edinburgh, Peston PPE Balliol.

    Nuff said!

  • David Langshaw 5th Jan '23 - 11:56am

    It strikes me that this latest Government “initiative” is going to be their equivalent of “bring back National Service”, as espoused by Tory backwoodsmen in the 1970s. It sounds good to many of their natural supporters, it seems to make sense to them as it looks like an obviously good idea, but it fails as soon as it is properly scrutinised. It’s designed to get good headlines; no-one can object to more and better education for teenagers, but the initiative is meaningless – it lacks clear definition, purpose, method of delivery or measure of success. But as soon as this is pointed out, the Tories will scream that their critics don’t want a numerate society. Lib Dem policymakers should proceed with caution.

  • Kevin Hawkins 5th Jan '23 - 12:22pm

    Many of the people who need help most with basic numeracy (and literacy) leave school at sixteen. Providing more help to 16-18 year olds will not address their needs.

  • Jason Connor 5th Jan '23 - 1:15pm

    A combination of what John and Barry have said. With the right enthusiastic teachers maths can be an exciting subject to teach. Rishi’s proposal does make sense and more tutors are needed to implement it.

  • Phil Beesley 5th Jan '23 - 3:12pm

    Callum Robertson: “For example, a Politics or History A Level could contain more data analytics questions that rely on data interpretation.”

    I think this is a sensible approach. Interpreting data contains elements of philosophy and logic. In social sciences, it is important to understand ethics.

  • From what was reported, it seemed Rishi was wanting to improve “analytical thinking”, not numeracy or “maths” skills. I suspect he is being mislead as to what is the “the solution” by A-level Maths being regarded as a good general A-level to have, regardless of what subject someone chooses to study, because it helps develop a student’s logical thinking skills.

    Thus the question becomes more about what is necessary to facilitate the development of analytical and reasoning skills in general rather than “maths” skills. It is through analytical skills you appreciate just how broken Conservative economic mumbo jumbo is and that the current mess the UK is in, is an inevitable consequence of applying that mumbo jumbo over many decades…

  • James Fowler 5th Jan '23 - 6:53pm

    It’s hard to know what problem (apart from headline garnering) this is designed to solve. It won’t solve basic numeracy. A level Maths is far beyond that. It won’t do much for a liberal interpretation of education which is about allowing people to follow their own interests. It may be that employers want more mathematicians, but I suspect employers above all want the obidient and well socialised. Could it be that maths results are easily quantifiable on various national and international league tables?

  • I agree with this piece. There’s a lot of benefit from learning maths, even the stuff you won’t use it as such, just as learning about music, history or literature expands the mind and helps you to understand the world or develop problem solving skills.

    But for many learning those skills via a less obviously maths qualification is more useful and accessible, just as many of us learnt how to read critically or improved our writing skills away from the English class.

    At risk of repeating myself from the previous thread, the county suffers because of the lack of decent numeracy skills in the general population, and unfortunately that includes a lot of people in positions of influence who are well educated in other areas. If resources allowed, I’d be all for incorporating more working numeracy into the latter stages of high school education, but the really big problem is that a lot of primary school teachers struggle to teach maths without the help of a workbook.

  • Jack Nicholls 6th Jan '23 - 7:11am

    Even if I disagreed with all of it (and I certainly don’t), I hugely welcome the tone of this post – Callum Robertson is to be congratulated. I really like the suggestion of incorporating numeracy into other subjects (and likewise the comment about ethics), not least because almost everyone struggles with one subject or another until it is put in a different, more accessible context. I was utterly at a loss about both geography and economics until I developed an interest in politics after leaving school. Sadly I suspect that what the Tories have in mind is taking a curriculum that fails so many (I’m not blaming individual teachers) and making everyone go through it longer without any real consideration about how to do it, not least so they can put the blame on schools and students when another whizzer Tory brainwave fails to yield results.

  • Brian Evans 6th Jan '23 - 10:03am

    ‘No additional A-level in mathematics’; ‘not equal to other qualifications studied by 16-19-year-olds’:
    I attended a local grammar school in the ‘sixties. In those days both English Language and English Literature were compulsory O-level subjects. While good at language, I found literature a bore and detested it strongly. In the sixth form, all students not taking English at A-level were required to attend a single lesson per week entitled ‘General English’. This was taken by the headmaster, and was essentially class reading of modern literature with some discussion, but definitely not leading to an examination. In this relaxed situation, I suddenly found an interest in my formerly detested subject which has stayed with me ever since. The same may well be true of mathematics under this ‘policy’, as analysed so well by Callum here.

  • We need to review the entire school curriculum. This review needs substantial research, and there needs to be an independent body to organise this. A good starting point would be to ask why various groups of children perform badly. An example is the children looked after by the local authority. They perform the worst, and their performance is easy to research, because local authorities have these figures. Another is the children registered for free school meals. Their performance is a few years behind the average at 16. Again it is easy to find these figures.
    We need to stop the nonsense of setting percentages of children who will achieve various grades. We are building into the system failure for some groups of children.
    This takes us to mathematics. Should we insist that MPs who lecture about the value of maths in everyday life produce evidence that they really understand the figures they have to deal with each day?

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Jan '23 - 10:45pm

    “ Should we insist that MPs who lecture about the value of maths in everyday life produce evidence that they really understand the figures they have to deal with each day?”


  • Tom Harney 6th Jan ’23 – 10:07am
    Should we insist that MPs who lecture about the value of maths in everyday life produce evidence that they really understand the figures they have to deal with each day?

    A Royal Statistical Society survey found that half of MPs were functionally innumerate…

    ‘New RSS survey tests statistical skills of MPs’:

    The survey also found that politicians who have been in power for longer performed better than those elected more recently. Those who had started in office between 2001 and 2009 performed the best, with 68 per cent giving the correct answer, compared to 38 per cent of MPs elected in 2019.

    ‘Statistical ignorance is a pandemic among MPs’:

    ‘Weekly Briefing: The number crunch’:

    A survey published this week by the Royal Statistical Society revealed that almost half of MPs couldn’t work out the probability of two coin tosses producing two heads. Even more alarmingly, only 16% correctly answered a question about the probability of having Covid if a test produces a certain proportion of false positives.

    Given that MPs have to scrutinise dense, data-heavy legislation, and weigh up the consequences of multi-billion pound policy interventions, this is pretty dismal stuff.

  • Callum Robertson gives a link to research by the National Audit Office where they defined low levels of numeracy as below those expected at primary school. It states that half the adult population of England and Wales were at these levels. Maths until 18 is not going to make any difference to them. He also states that those who achieve a below grade 4 GCSE in English and Maths already have to do retakes (I assume each year of their two years of education). Maths until 18 is not going to help them because they are already studying Maths. If someone achieves a grade 4 in Maths do they have a low level of Maths? (A grade 4 is the equivalent to a grade C ‘O level’) I think not. So they don’t need to study Maths to any higher level. There seems to be no point in making Maths compulsory until 18. What would be better would be to provide better teaching of Maths for those who have difficulties with it and especially those who have to do re-takes. If someone has trouble with getting a grade 4 GCSE would achieving a Functional Skill level 2, which are part of Apprenticeship, be sufficient?

  • For my money the LibDem approach to education should be very different from the Conservatives and not just in in maths. Whereas Conservatives typically seek top-down control (hence the proliferation of compulsion and targets), Liberals should promote ‘Agency’ in its sociological meaning: “The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”

    In education, that’s for the parents in the case of the young but after, say, 14 or 16 teenagers should begin to make their own decisions including, IMO, leaving school if they wish. However, that MUST go with the opportunity to go back to studying later, with appropriate financial support.

    I say that because not everyone has a smooth path through their school years. Illness, bereavement, family break-up etc. can all derail learning at a critical juncture so the system should allow for that and not insist that, for example, someone who is functionally illiterate must stay in school doing a syllabus he can’t access.

    Also, it should mean a proper framework of training in trade skills, i.e. apprenticeships, from basic to highly skilled, with appropriate entry qualifications and the opportunity to climb a ladder from the most basic to the most advanced.

    The aim should be to create multiple paths from (1) school to (2) post-school learning to (3) a good career for all levels and types of ability and ambition and not just the academically gifted as is the British tradition.

    Done well, that would transform motivation and therefore outcomes.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '23 - 12:51am

    @Martin “Post 16 education in the UK has a very narrow focus”
    And sadly, changes to A-levels while Lib Dems were in Coalition narrowed this further. 🙁

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '23 - 1:08am

    “rather than opposing the government proposal outright, let us work constructively to try and get a valuable piece of educational reform through”
    I think this is an excellent article on an important topic, but this particular point speaks volumes in a wider context. These days, the Lib Dem strategy seems be knee-jerk opposition to anything uttered by a Conservative without making it clear what the party’s alternative is, and consequently the party looks very small-c conservative. Perhaps it’s a good electoral strategy for all those Blue Wall targets, but it’s pretty disappointing and uninspiring.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '23 - 1:17am

    @Jeff “almost half of MPs couldn’t work out the probability of two coin tosses producing two heads”
    However, apparently “this is a likely improvement from when the RSS polled MPs with the same question ten years ago, when 40 per cent of MPs gave the correct answer” and there were far more Lib Dem MPs!! 😉

  • Jason Connor 8th Jan '23 - 12:11pm

    Hand in hand with individuals acting independently and making their own free choices is a fully funded careers service. . It always surprises me how the Lib Dems as a party do not pick up on this though it was thanks to the coalition that much of this Service was decimated. The Connexions service for example worked very closely with young people and with some success not just on careers but personal and social development. Careers Advisers are trained to empower young people to make impartial well informed decisions, challenge job stereotyping and consider non traditional careers. Sometimes as Peter alludes to, it is not just about endlessly attacking the government, that’s all Labour seems to do these days, but coming up with ideas and different solutions to challenging policy areas.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jan '23 - 2:45pm

    @Jason Connor “Careers Advisers are trained to empower young people to make impartial well informed decisions, challenge job stereotyping and consider non traditional careers.”
    I would agree that an effective careers service is vital.
    The informal availability of advice and role-models gives a massive advantage to children from more affluent families who grow up exposed to a range of aspirational careers among their parents, family friends and friends’ families.
    However, I don’t believe that a careers service is enough in and of itself to address this, and a much more fundamental, integrated approach is necessary to make capable but disadvantaged children aware of the opportunities available to them and to help them realise their potential.

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