All pupils to study maths until 18…?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of making all students study maths until they are 18?

Rishi Sunak wants every student in the U.K. to study maths up until the age of 18 (1)

In his first speech of 2023 Sunak stated that he wants people to better equipped with numeracy skills so that they are better equipped to deal with an increasingly data-driven society and to manage their personal finances.

A further argument for making some kind of maths or numeracy lessons compulsory until 18 is that doing so should make British students more competitive internationally: many other countries which are higher up the PISA league tables do so, such as Finland and Canada.

Approximately half of 16-18 year olds currently do maths or science subjects at A-level, but most of these are those who achieved lower than a C grade at GCSE and are forced to resit their GCSE.

Only a minority of students who get C and above in maths go on to do a maths related subject at A-level, there are currently at least 400 000 16-18 year olds in Further Education institutions who are qualified to maths or science subjects but aren’t doing them, having opted for humanities subjects instead (20)

The speech was thin on details but the government has ruled out making A-level maths compulsory at 16-18 and has suggested that developing some innovate approaches to teaching numeracy post-16 will probably be required.

Increasing Maths Teaching: Supply and Demand Challenges…

On the supply side, the government is currently 5000 maths teachers short of its recruitment target.

A brief look at the statistics illustrates this: there were only 35 771 Maths teachers in state secondary schools in 2021, compared to 39 000 English teachers, with one in eight maths lessons being taught routinely by a non-specialist.

It seems unlikely that the government is going to be able to recruit more maths teachers given the 24% real terms pay cut teachers have been subjected to since 2010 and the current below inflation 5% pay increase being offered by the government for 2023.

And jobs in teaching are going to be especially unattractive for maths and science graduates, given that maths and science degrees tend to be gateways to higher paying careers.

A related supply problem is that sixth form colleges have seen drastic real terms funding cuts compared to other sixth form providers in recent years, being 20% underfunded in comparison, so these probably don’t have the funds to boost 16-18 math provision effectively.

On the demand side there is the problem that most students simply do not want to do maths related subjects beyond the age 16, and forcing all students to spend an hour or two a week studying a subject they don’t want to is a waste of resources, and so increasing maths provision could come at the expense of teaching students a broader range of subjects that they think will actually be of use to them.

There are a whole load of other subjects students could be usefully taught besides maths, such as critical thinking, political issues and debating contemporary news items civilly, for example.

And besides this A-level maths is actually the most popular subject already, with entries having increased from 83 000 in 2018-19 to almost 89 000 in 2020/ 2021. (3)

Finally, forcing 16-18 year olds to do maths won’t help the 8 million adults in the UK who only have primary levels of numeracy.

Signposting

This post is most relevant to the sociology of education, especially education policies.

Sources

(1) BBC News (January 2023) Rishi Sunak Wants All Pupils to Study Maths Until Age 18.

(2) The Guardian (January 2023) Multiplication of Teachers and Funds Needed for Sunak’s Post-16 Maths Policy.

(3) Gov Data on STEM A-level subject entries, accessed January 2023.

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