Picture the scene. The depths of Whitehall, anytime in the last decade. Five years ago you blagged your way onto the civil service graduate scheme after you’d forgotten to do any internships. You’ve been shunted from department to department – a year counting sheep at DEFRA, six months making PowerPoints at International Trade, sixteen weeks sharing an office with a dour Glaswegian divorcee at the Scottish Office.
Somewhere along the way, you impressed someone. You’ve been recommended for a prime post. Working for a Great Office of State, no less. You don’t pay much attention to politics, but someone mentioned that your potential boss might be the next Prime Minister. They’re sat opposite now. You can’t say you know much about them – something about Yorkshire? – but that doesn’t matter. They’ve started speaking.
You’ve prepared for this. You know your CV back to front. You’ve made up half a dozen stories about consultancy gigs you landed. You’ve seen The Apprentice – you’re ready for anything. Or so you think. Under her steely gaze, you wilt before she even finishes her first question.
“What is a seventh minus an eighth?”
That, dear reader, is how noted number junkie Liz Truss apparently began job interviews with civil servants. As the daughter of an emeritus professor of pure mathematics, the former Prime Minister had the subject in her blood and took Maths and Further Maths at A Level. One of her first backbench campaigns was to highlight that only 20 per cent of British pupils studied Maths to 18.
Her solution? To demand the subject be taught to all in full-time education. So one imagines that she must be ecstatic to see that her successor has taken up her crusade. We don’t know if Sunak got his latest proposal from his well-thumbed copy of Out of the Blue or not. But he has certainly learnt from Truss the art of proposing a policy that is greeted by general incredulity.
Opponents to Sunak’s proposal to have all pupils study Maths until 18 can be broadly classified into three groups. First is the “Why now?” school of confected-outrage. Why is Sunak bothering about Maths whilst inflation is at 10 per cent, the nurses are on strike, and our beaches are clogged up with Albanians? He may have been sunning himself in Guadeloupe, but he is not far off Sunny Jim’s Supertramp tribute act.
The second is the “Simon Pegg” approach, based on the actor’s viral (and vile) video. The Spaced star is a foul-mouthed tribune for angry arts graduates everywhere. He speaks for all those who hated Maths, and for whom dropping it was the happiest day of their life. Although not all of us can make a career from whacking zombies and buddying up to Tom Cruise, he has a point. Many pupils loathe maths and can’t wait to drop it. Why make them do it for two more years?
The final school of opposition is the practical one. The Government has failed throughout the last decade to reach its recruitment targets for Maths teachers. Despite generous bursary schemes (and the obvious sex appeal that comes with teaching algebra for a living), the Government has only managed 90 per cent of its target for the last two years – and in 2019, didn’t even reach two-thirds. With just over half of A-Level students currently doing Maths, the scaling up of staffing this policy will be hugely expensive, if at all feasible.
Each of these arguments has its merits. A narrative is certainly developing in some quarters that Sunak has been seen too little during a period of national strife. I dropped Maths at 16, did three essay subjects, and found myself in the sort of writing job of which I had always dreamed – and even without a Maths A-Level, I can see that Sunak’s sums don’t entirely add up.
Nonetheless, I don’t believe the Prime Minister deserves all the opprobrium his proposal has so far garnered. Those suggesting this country doesn’t have a problem with Maths clearly don’t have a decent grasp of statistics. 49 per cent of our working-age population only have the numeracy levels we expect of primary school children – around eight million people. That places England below the OECD average for numerical proficiency. To coin a phrase: That. Is. A. Disgrace.
The total cost of this to our economy has been put at £20 billion a year, and to the average individual at £460 a year. With the data revolution becoming ever-more essential to our economy and top occupations, a capacity for number crunching is only likely to become more valuable in decades to come. Then again, simply studying Maths to 18 doesn’t automatically make you a financial whizz – as Truss herself proved.
We also cannot avoid the fact that in France, Germany, America, and Japan, Maths is compulsory up until 18. As Sunak pointed out last summer, we are almost unique in the Western world in allowing students to drop Maths at 16. He was also clear that this policy is not designed to force everyone to do an extra A-Level and will not come into action before the next election. His predecessor has taught the virtue of not rushing into new policies.
This is therefore an extended exercise in putting up a balloon, testing the waters, and taking the first tentative steps towards a Sunakian agenda that does not solely involve putting out his predecessor’s firestorms. It is not the answer to the question of how we improve our national numeracy, but it is a start and should be commended accordingly. That is especially if, as The Telegraph’s Harry de Quetteville has suggested, it forms only the first aspect of a much broader educational revolution.
Although more than half of A-Level pupils take Maths, a far larger number fail it annually at GCSE level. 230,000 pupils had to re-take the subject last summer, and only 20 per cent passed on their second or later attempts. Clearly, little good is going to come from simply shoving them into Maths A-Level. A new curriculum is required, of which a core Maths qualification can form a part. In short, de Quetteville suggests a new British Baccalaureate.
At the other end of the educational age range, there is also a case for putting more money into early education, to intervene with pupils who struggle with Maths much earlier. We currently spend, in dollars per pupil, less than half what the Germans do. That. Is. A…you know the rest. Early intervention is now all the rage with the NHS. Why not with education, too?
As such, Sunak’s announcement this week should be taken as the start of a much broader reform agenda, from a Prime Minister who claims improving educational standards was the mission that got him into politics in the first place. In this, he is the spitting image of his predecessor, except that he is going about his revolution rather more quietly.