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On 4 January, the Department for Education (DfE) published advance notice of a speech by the Prime Minister to set an ‘ambition of maths to 18’. Since then, a chorus of commentators - perhaps predictably and mostly unanimously - has poured scorn on the idea. The problem is that nothing we have read really gets to the nub of the matter.

Why is it that mathematics, alongside English, already occupies such a privileged place in our curriculum? Why is it that access to jobs or further education relies on success in those two subjects? Why is it that international comparison studies have such a strong focus on the mathematics?

Plato may have been the first person in recorded history to state the opinion that studying mathematics improves a person’s capacity to think critically and reason logically.

It is only recently though that evidence has started to emerge that supports the longstanding point of view that mathematical training is essential for its effect on developing us all as thinkers. It is perhaps understandable that most OECD countries insist on some form of mathematical study until the age of 18.

Matt Nixon & David Coglan – School of Education, University of Birmingham

The celebrated hymnwriter, Isaac Watts, wrote in 1725, “If we pursue mathematical speculations, they will inure us to attend closely to any subject, to seek and gain clear ideas, to distinguish truth from falsehood, to judge justly, and to argue strongly”. It is only recently though that evidence has started to emerge that supports the longstanding point of view that mathematical training is essential for its effect on developing us all as thinkers. It is perhaps understandable that most OECD countries insist on some form of mathematical study until the age of 18.

Arguably there is no more compelling reason than this for mathematics being a core subject that is already taught to everyone until the age of 16, but other reasons that are perhaps easier to understand and communicate tend to be focussed on instead. These reasons are less compelling, and so it is easier to be sceptical and to argue against them, especially when they form part of the debate about extending some form of compulsory mathematics for a further two years.

It is reasonable to suggest that studying mathematics can equip you with some of the skills required to manage your finances in the future. Indeed, the DfE talked of ‘low numeracy rates’ and ‘basic maths skills’, but we would argue that much of the focus on this aspect of the announcement misses an important point. Pupils who attain a grade 4 in GCSE mathematics should already have the basic skills to manage their money. Those who don’t are almost certainly studying mathematics post-16 already; if they continue in school or college, it is compulsory to re-sit the GCSE in mathematics. The reality of this situation is that pupils often must do so with fewer hours of teaching and alongside their further chosen study. It is rarely seen as a priority, and there is also sometimes a lack of expertise in the tuition they receive. For some pupils this is a valuable opportunity to attain the benchmark grade 4. For many, it reaffirms their dislike of the subject by allowing them to fail it on multiple further occasions.

We welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on ‘quantitative and statistical skills’ and the observation that ‘data is everywhere’. We also agree that we are letting pupils down if we don’t equip them with the skills to deal with this in their future jobs. Given that mathematics is already the most popular A-Level, and that some pupils are resitting their GCSE at this time, the discussion mostly impacts those who have done well in the subject but have chosen not to pursue it further. Our questions therefore are related to how we go about this.

An obvious consequence of increasing mathematics provision is that more teaching time will be required. However, there is serious ongoing issue with teacher recruitment and the government needs to find a solution to this before asking schools to teach more mathematics. It is already the case that 45% of secondary schools are in a position where they must use non-specialist teachers for some of the mathematics curriculum (Schools Week, 2023). The target for recruitment into mathematics teacher training programmes was recently reduced, but there is still a 10% shortfall for 2022-23. We are fortunate to be reasonably well isolated from this in our teacher education programmes at the University of Birmingham, but this will be of little reassurance to secondary schools throughout the country who are already struggling to deliver effective mathematics teaching consistently.

The DfE’s phrase, ‘some form of maths’, needs to be defined and communicated. The existing suite of post-16 mathematics qualifications already includes both Mathematics and Further Mathematics A-Levels, and some schools offer ‘Core Maths’. This broad heading describes a set of Level 3 qualifications offered by examination boards and targeted at those pupils who have already attained a grade 4 but have chosen not to study A-Level Mathematics. They are designed to support pupils studying the sciences, geography, and psychology, especially with the quantitative data analysis skills required. The DfE is promising to explore the options for mathematics post-16: now that the announcement has been made schools, teachers and pupils will want further detail as soon as possible about what any proposed curriculum might look like.

The potential losers in this debate are other subjects, especially the arts. An increase in study time for mathematics has the potential to impinge on study time in other subjects. It may be wiser to analyse the mathematics content of other subjects and consider how the teaching of that could be strengthened instead. The statistics content of A-Level psychology is more advanced than many teachers might expect, whilst the numerical and geometrical understanding necessary for success in A-Level textiles is surprisingly challenging.

As enthusiasts for the subject, we would be delighted if everybody enjoyed mathematics as we try to encourage. Realistically we would be happy if there was a widely understood notion of its position as a core subject, an enhanced appreciation of its place as a facilitating subject and a recognition of its benefit to every member of a society immersed in data and in need of probabilistic thinking. There is potentially more to be gained by teaching everyone mathematics well than there is by teaching everyone mathematics post-16.

Matt Nixon & David Coglan – School of Education, University of Birmingham