The prime minister’s reiteration this week of his belief that all young people should study maths to 18 reflects a view that subjects can and should be prioritised according to the return on investment they offer to the Treasury and to their value to young people in securing employment and contributing to the economy.
A focus on maths education is important, and sixth form colleges – with their specialist expertise and established tradition of excellent results in A Level, core maths and GCSE resits as well as their large populations of students taking maths – are well-placed to support an increase in take-up.
But it is also important to foster a love of learning for learning’s sake. Maths is already the most popular A level subject, accounting for more than one in ten of all entries. So it’s worth remembering that all disciplines have an important role to play in enriching our society by offering learners a wide range of expertise and skills.
The promotion of maths must therefore be a part of a wider strategy. We also need to develop skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and communication, and young people need to develop their artistic sensitivities through the arts, their understanding of the world through the lessons of history, and their active role in a democracy through the study of philosophy, law and politics.
So we still need to see more details of the Mr Sunak’s proposal, but a raft of questions already arise, including what measures will be introduced to address the fact that it is already difficult to recruit enough maths teachers.
If maths is to be added to a young person’s timetable, there will be more lessons on the timetable. Will the government commit to fully fund the delivery of additional maths qualifications?
Of course, maths for all to 18 does not mean that everyone will have to take maths at A level. Some will take core maths (roughly equivalent to half an A level). Others may need to resit their GCSE. If the latter pass at the end of the first year, at 17, what should they study for the final two terms before their A level examinations in other subjects?
Crucially, what kind of maths should be studied by those who aren’t naturally drawn to choosing maths?
In 2018, Lord Baker advocated two different maths GCSE exams, such as happens in English (language and literature). This would make sense at post-16 too. Those who want to study mathematical theories can choose A level. Those who want to develop their practical numeracy should be able to access a different qualifications focused on the skills they will need in the real world, from basic operations to geometry, and from percentages to basic statistics.
But if we are to succeed in achieving the prime minister’s ambition of maths for all to 18, we will have to build capacity first. The policy will mean even more demanding targets for the recruitment of maths teachers at the end of a decade when targets have been missed every year. The strategy will have to be properly resourced too: additional maths lessons on the timetable will only add to the cost pressures facing schools and colleges.
Then, once the capacity is there, the realities of delivering the policy will need careful consideration. We will have to establish the course content and the level of the qualifications offered. Employers will have to be engaged, including through the new expert advisory group, so that their needs are fully taken into account. And we will have to protect other disciplines in order to avert the kind of narrowing of the curriculum that followed the introduction of the EBacc and Progress 8, with a drop in the average number of GCSEs (or equivalents) taken by students from 11 to 7.
So there is much to do and to clarify before this proposal can become a reality, but the debate is an important one and sixth form colleges will look to make a valuable contribution.