Rishi Sunak’s maths-to-18 pledge is utterly out of touch

By Geoff Barton, General Secretary
Association of School and College Leaders

Without vision, the people will perish.” That’s what scripture says. And so this week, two political leaders – Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer – supposedly set out their vision for our country. I’ll focus on the Prime Minister’s speech.

In a speech short on detail, we did have one: more maths for 16-18 year olds. One of the frustrations about Rishi Sunak’s plan to extend maths teaching for all students in England is that it came out of the blue with no discussion with school and college leaders.

This is poor political leadership because the policy lacks the input of the very people who are responsible for delivering education, and, perhaps even worse, the absence of consultation demonstrates a lack of respect for the expertise the profession can offer.

Unfortunately, it is far from being the first time this has happened. The National Tutoring Programme was launched in a similar manner, for example, and the fact that it was then plagued with problems is a direct result of that omission. 

It is inconceivable that politicians would make policy announcements on new initiatives in heart surgery or cancer treatment off the top of their heads without talking to doctors, and yet, in education, it happens all the time.

If the Prime Minister had spent any time consulting on his thoughts about maths education, it would have been possible to advise him about the problems with extending maths for all to 18, and how we might improve numeracy.

The first issue is the lack of a clear rationale.

Last summer, about 75% of pupils passed GCSE maths at Grades 9 to 4. Many students then go on to study maths A level – it is the largest entry subject. Those that do not achieve at least a Grade 4 – deemed as a ‘standard pass’ – are required to continue to study either functional skills or GCSE maths during their post-16 courses.

So, presumably the Prime Minister’s policy is intended to capture the students who have passed GCSE maths at Grades 9-4 but don’t go on to study A level maths, as this is the only group who currently don’t continue with maths beyond the age of 16.

Does this mean then that the government does not think that GCSE maths is good enough at grade 4 and above? Is the idea that students who have achieved at least a ‘standard pass’ actually need further maths study to be ready for life? And, if so, what is the point of the GCSE? Remember, this is a recently reformed GCSE which the government was busily trumpeting as a gold standard not so long ago.

The actual problem with numeracy is, of course, not really over the students who achieve Grades 9-4 at GCSE but the impact on those who don’t – the damage that this causes to their educational and career options and to their life chances

The majority of the students who retake GCSE maths in post-16 education do not attain Grades 9-4 at this stage either. Last summer, only about 17% did so. For all the others, retaking an exam and falling below the bar once again is demoralising and is unlikely to help improve their numeracy skills. In fact, it probably makes them less confident.

ASCL has already suggested one solution to these issues. We have proposed a passport-style qualification to replace GCSE maths (and English) which is assessed at ascending levels of competence between the ages of 15 and 19 at points in time when the student is ready and which builds confidence and expertise.

This would remove the cliff-edge of a high-stakes terminal exam at the age of 16 and the feeling of failure the current system engenders for many young people, as well as providing a continuum of learning, and showing very clearly to employers, colleges, and universities what students can do. It could actually deliver the Prime Minister’s ambition, but in a way that is more coherent and supportive than simply bolting extra maths on to the current system.

But the type of qualification is, of course, only one part of the picture. Another is ensuring that all students benefit from having a great maths teacher, and the huge problem here is that there are nowhere near enough maths teachers in the education system.

In fact, the government has missed its initial teacher training target for maths teachers in every year since 2012/13. In practice, this means that many schools struggle to recruit and this is, of course, most likely to be the case in schools stigmatised by an Ofsted judgement that is below good and which face the greatest challenges.

So, in this context, neither Rishi Sunak’s plan – nor indeed any plan at all for improving numeracy – stands the remotest chance of being successful.

If the Prime Minister had consulted with school and college leaders, we could have told him this. It might have even kick-started a process where we could work together to find some solutions to the recruitment crisis – something we have been suggesting for many years.

Instead, we are left with another meaningless policy gimmick which is unlikely to ever happen, which does nothing for children’s numeracy, and which does not touch on the big issues facing education, such as funding, teacher supply and special educational needs support. 

Rishi Sunak says good things about education. He talks about its economic, social and moral importance. He describes it as the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. And his government’s decision in the recent Autumn Statement to improve school funding showed this is not all talk – even if it was some way short of what is actually needed. 

But his announcement on maths – the centrepiece of what was meant to be a visionary New Year speech – lacked the dialogue with the profession that is surely essential to producing effective and deliverable policy. 

There’s a lesson there for all ministers – and for Keir Starmer and his team. If you think education matters, and that it can be improved, well, so do we – the people working in our schools and colleges. Work up any ideas with us so that they can utterly translate into policy rather than whacky wheezes in speeches that will quickly come to nothing. 

Or, in the spirit of emphasising maths, add up to zero.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 06/01/2023 11:13:59