doesn't add up

The UK wants pupils to study math for longer, but who'll teach them?

UK PM Rishi Sunak is right that math is important, but his proposal overlooks critical issues

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Still working out the details of how to teach math better in the UK.
Still working out the details of how to teach math better in the UK.
Photo: WPA Pool / Pool (Getty Images)

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s latest agenda item is battling Britain’s low numeracy rates.

In the British education system, school kids can drop Mathematics and English after the age of 16. And thousands do. In his first speech of 2023, the UK leader proposed to make math compulsory for all pupils until the age of 18.

Part of the reason Sunak is pushing for a lasting math presence in the school curriculum is to equip all young people with the skills to take on advanced jobs once they enter the workforce. “[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 said.

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Even for those who firmly believe they won’t use math in their future profession, there’s a more basic reasoning for why they shouldn’t give the subject up early in life. Knowledge of math will give them the “right skills to feel confident with finances in later life, including finding the best mortgage deal or savings rate,” Sunak says.

The UK requires students aged 14-16 to retake the math General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam if they don’t secure at least a grade 4, but after that, they’re free to forgo the subject. Several other countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway and the US, ensure students take some type of math until they turn 18.

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UK numeracy, by the digits

8 million: Adults in England who have the numeracy skills of primary school children.

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Half: Share of 16-19-year-olds who study any math at all.

10 years: How long two parliament terms last—also the amount of time Sunak expects to take to fully implement his “maths to 18” program

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The math problem starts before 16, says Britain’s chief statistician

Sunak’s proposal sounds good on paper, but fails to consider several issues. Some critics argued the focus on older students is misguided. Sunak should instead pay closer attention to early school education, strengthening the subject’s foundation.

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In countries like China and Russia, children learn more advanced concepts like multiplication and algebra at a younger age, when their minds are malleable. Continuing to learn the subject until they turn 18 also gives them more hours and years to grasp the subject.

That perhaps explains why, by the time some 14-16-year-olds in the UK sit for their GCSE exams, their base isn’t as solid.

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“The poor performance of GCSE resit students often reflects fundamental issues at earlier stages of mathematics teaching. Numeracy can be weak, and these students often need to go back to basics,” Sir Adrian Smith, a British statistician who is the chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute and president of the Royal Society, wrote in a 2017 report for the government.

Smith also noted that those issues affect students who score well too: “Similarly, a lack of confidence among students with good GCSE grades to continue the subject reflects problems at earlier stages, including a ‘teaching to the test’ culture at GCSE, which can lead to over-emphasis of memorisation strategies and result in shallow understanding.”

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A chronic math teacher shortage

For Sunak’s plan to work, schools need teachers. There’s already a chronic shortage of math teachers, and not enough are being recruited to the profession. This academic year, the government only filled 90% of the trainee math teacher target it set. Recruitment struggles can lead to poor teaching quality. A November report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that many schools used non-specialist teachers to teach subjects like math, physics, and foreign languages due to staffing issues.

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Lawmakers for the opposition parties were quick to point out the shortcomings in Sunak’s proposal. Labour MP and shadow secretary for education Bridget Phillipson cited missed recruitment targets and teachers leaving in droves. “The PM needs to show us his working because his gimmicky pledges don’t add up,” she tweeted.

Sunak’s blueprint remains vague. In his speech, he pointed to the additional annual £2 billion ($2.4 billion) the government will pump into schools for the next two years, but didn’t expand on how they’ll be deployed.

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Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “The prime minister’s words mean nothing without the extra funding and staff to make it happen.” While Wilson agrees the post-16 curriculum as it stands is “too narrow,” she has called for the government to show “a real teacher recruitment and retention plan” and outline an overall curriculum reform.