Alasdair Wright, Head of Maths at St Catherine’s School, Bramley, gives a mathematician and educator’s perspective on proposals to make students study maths to 18

At the start of this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for all pupils in England to study maths to 18 to tackle innumeracy and equip them with analytical skills to thrive in data-driven careers.  Yet, unlike a strong maths student, Mr Sunak failed to show his workings. 

For those who don’t enjoy the beauty of maths (I admit there are some!), and who won’t progress beyond a GCSE to A level, it is unclear what Mr Sunak’s plans are.  I can only imagine it would be some kind of functional maths or practical maths course. If the job of educators is to excite, inspire and convey knowledge, I fear this could subject some students to a further two years of misery. If a student isn’t venturing into maths- or science-based degrees, is this really constructive?

St Catherine's, Bramley on a maths miscalculation
For those students who don’t gravitate towards maths, enforcing the study to 18 would not be constructive, argues Alasdair Wright

The 60% of Sixth Form girls at St Catherine’s who have chosen to study maths and further maths don’t necessarily love every lesson and they do find concepts challenging, but they also delight in the challenge of unsolved problems and their A-level results speak for themselves.

In the workplace, a sound understanding of percentages and fractions may be all someone needs to function effectively. This is covered at GCSE in detail so I can’t see how this can be dragged out over a further two years, tethering students to their calculators to 18. Learning to run your own finances and gaining an understanding of mortgages and interest rates would certainly be useful life lessons, but in most schools these areas are sensibly covered in PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) lessons.  

“Compounding the challenge for Mr Sunak’s ambition is the lack of maths teachers nationwide, as noted in a TES report last November”

Compounding the challenge for Mr Sunak’s ambition is the lack of maths teachers nationwide. It hasn’t been suggested how we are going to recruit more to fulfil the extra maths teaching that would be needed. Nor how we address the fact that, at the moment, half of secondary school pupils are taught maths by non-specialist teachers, as noted in a TES report last November.

I’ll end with a nod to my colleagues. Any extra maths sessions that students are made to do post 16 will inevitably be at the detriment of other subjects, such as art, music and drama. With the Arts Council estimating the creative industries bring £8.5bn to the UK economy annually, it is not just the worlds of science and finance that make economic sense. I’m happy to help with the calculations Sunak. 

St Catherine’s, Bramley

Further reading: Are exams fit for purpose?