Does 16+2 = Math’s Misery for All?

Is Rishi Sunak’s announcement earlier this month, on his plan to extend compulsory maths education until the age of 18 a massive miscalculation?  Current analysis of public opinion indicates that it is a miscalculation and not good education practice.

On a positive note its great that he has recognised that more investment is needed in ensuring the opportunities are available to gain the relevant mathematical skills at level 2.  However, what is going to be done differently than is not already in place in Post 16 education?  FE Providers have asked for better funding and more time to develop literacy, numeracy and functional skills for 16 year olds for the past 40 years or more to no avail.

Publicly, it is not difficult to gauge that maths education being extended is not the top of everyone’s priorities right now. I will come back to educational practice shortly, and at the most basic level of supply and demand, there are a wealth of articles and information on the number of maths teachers versus the number of students available, that demonstrate that the governments figures just don’t add up.

Currently England has less than 36,000 math teachers and recently, the government lowered its own quota for new maths teachers from 2,800 to 2,040 despite not hitting targets for maths teacher recruitment in the previous 2 years. It is expected that for A-Level students alone an extra 185,000 students would be required to study maths in some form. Add a similar amount of students from FE then we are looking at some pretty large class sizes and significant funding commitment from government to be able to deliver this strategy.  There are already concerns about over crowding in schools without piling on unnecessary strain on overstretched and underfunded system.

Why should we impose the need for maths to be taught up to the age of 18?

Beyond the supply issue, there is the more important question, why should we impose the need for maths to be taught up to the age of 18? No one can deny that maths is massively important in all aspects of life, education and employment, but what maths, to what level and is addressing it at age 16, 11 years too late?

How we teach maths and what aspects of mathematics we teach in England needs a complete overhaul, from primary education through to FE. For too long, educational doctrine on maths has focussed on skills and techniques that have no bearing on every day life. At the age of 45, having worked in a variety of fields ranging from lifeguard to learning support and from Customer Service Apprentice to Partnership Director, and having completed degrees at three separate universities, I have never been required to multiply, divide or add a fraction. The lowest common denominator for most of us is the current education system.

Despite being reasonably adept at maths and I despised it.

Imagine those thousands of school children and millions of adults that have always struggled with maths, or more accurately, the maths they are forced to endure, being told, guess what? you’ve got another two years of it. What would adding another two more years of mandatory maths achieve that the previous 11 years has failed to? Einstein is often misquoted as saying “insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results” perhaps the prime minister would do well to consider this. I commented on a recent LinkedIn post that this approach was akin to me filling my diesel car up with petrol for 11 years and hoping that I continue for a further two will make everything alright.

We can draw comparisons on the negative effect that enforced maths can do, if we look at the current rules on apprenticeships. The need to pass English and maths functional skills, to be able to complete an apprenticeship, is the cause of a great deal of anguish and drop out. With the advent of End Point Assessment, which tests all of the required knowledge, skills and behaviours, an individual needs to be able to work competently in an occupation. If someone can pass their EPA surely this dictates that they have the skills needed for the job? Not whether or not they can convert a percentage into a decimal and then into a fraction. A good education system should facilitate social mobility, but in its current form, the imposition of maths education to level 2 is a barrier for many and Rishi’s plan will exacerbate the issue not improve it.

There a many examples of very able and competent people not being able to sit their EPA

There a many examples of very able and competent people not being able to sit their EPA, never mind complete their apprenticeship due to not being able to complete their functional skills. At a personal level, the current structure would have prevented my brother from completing his dental technician apprenticeship.

Luckily he undertook his apprenticeship quite some time ago and now runs a very successful dental lab and travels the world, sharing the technique he developed and is well respected from the USA to Japan and beyond. From a working class background in Leeds, that is social mobility and something the current system would not allow. Although my brother had no particular desire to do a-levels or other academic focussed FE, the need to continue with maths for a further two years in any educational setting would have driven him away from all education.

If maths is so important and Rishi’s plan is so ill conceived, then what is the solution?

How about earlier intervention and more funding. The government’s own data shows that the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged peers stars from as early as four years old ( . In Key Stage 1, over 80% of children who are not eligible for free school meals are at the expected level for maths as opposed to under 63% of those who are eligible for free school meals. I do not have the data to hand about how this compares to pupils from Stroud, King Edward VI Preparatory School nor how the national average at GCSE compares with Winchester College, where Mr Sunak was privately educated.

By Key Stage 2 the gap continues to widen from 17% to a 22% disparity between those that are at the expected levels for maths and those that are not, when eligibility for free school meals is taken into account. CEO of the Early Years Alliance, Neil Leitch, quoted in the TES, sates the policy is “too little, too late for many children and especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds”.  For Mr Leitch “prioritising early education” would have a greater and more beneficial impact. So it would seem that early years intervention is vital and funding is required from Key Stage 1 and beyond to improve attainment levels, particularly for those who are disadvantaged.

Beyond early intervention and funding, perhaps it is time to review and overhaul the maths curriculum and make it more engaging, less abstract and teach aspects of it that have genuine impact on every day life. Teaching children how interest rates are calculated and how book makers calculate odds, and how they are stacked against the gambler, might have a more positive and long lasting impact on our future generations than understanding quadratic equations.

If we make maths practical and useful from an early age and remove the abstract nonsense of certain formulas and equations then we can capture the attention of our future generations and then they can grow to love, or at least understand maths in a basic and functional sense. Then, should they wish to develop this further, they can go on to study the more complex, and less functional aspects of it. Equally, the maths taught in apprenticeships and vocational education should be linked to the occupation not just mapped to a specific level.

60% of disadvantaged pupils do not have basic maths skills by the age of 16

The fact that 60% of disadvantaged pupils do not have basic maths skills by the age of 16 is damning indictment on our education system and starkly illustrates that what we are doing doesn’t work. Pythagorean theorem has not come in useful for me in any aspect of life other than passing a maths test. Understanding APR may have helped my finances significantly more than being able to work out the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle.

Many people, who are far more informed than I, argue that this idea has not been well thought through. I would recommend reading the reactions in to get a balanced flavour on opinion from the FE sector. If so many influential and experienced educators think this is ill conceived why does our prime minister want push ahead with it? After all, his predecessor, achieved two maths A-Levels and I don’t think they came in that handy when it came to her disastrous economic policy. Being able to wipe £30 billion off the economy in 24 hours is a pretty good argument against maths up to the age of 18 if you ask me.