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Labour Unveils ‘Phonics For Maths’ Initiative in Planned Curriculum Review

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Labour has outlined its intention to replace Rishi Sunak’s mandatory maths classes for students up to the age of 18 in England with enhanced maths education for younger children and practical numeracy lessons grounded in “real-world” applications. 

The proposal would introduce a new “phonics for maths” programme for early years and primary school classes, mirroring the emphasis on literacy set out by the previous Labour government. 

Practical maths

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, presented this curriculum reform at the Labour conference in Liverpool. To “bring maths to life for the next generation”, the new approach will feature practical examples derived from areas like household budgeting, currency exchange rates for tourists, sports league tables, and cooking recipes.

“Maths is the language of the universe, the underpinning of our collective understanding. It cannot be left till the last years of school.

“It’s why I’m proud to tell you today that we’ll tackle our chronic cultural problem with maths, by making sure it’s better taught at six, never mind 16,” Phillipson said.

Compulsory maths classes until 18

Rishi Sunak has recently put forward a new mandate, suggesting that students between the ages of 16 and 18 should be obliged to participate in some type of mathematics classes after GCSEs, with the aim of addressing the issues of underperformance and shortages of mathematical skills in England.

The need for specialised maths teachers at a young age

However, many experts argue that the issues actually originate much earlier, and the absence of specialised maths teachers in primary schools results in knowledge gaps among adults who struggle to comprehend fundamental graphs or calculate the value of supermarket discounts.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It is vital that Labour builds upon the excellent maths teaching that is already taking place in our primary schools. There is a high level of expertise within our schools, and teachers and leaders have worked incredibly hard to develop their maths curriculum in recent years.

“We urge Labour to work closely with the profession as it develops this policy proposal so that it properly meets the needs of school leaders and teachers. Such a policy must be done with teachers, not to them.”

Labour expressed its intention to redirect Sunak’s mathematics advisory group, which was introduced by the prime minister in April. The party proposed that the group “focuses on primary maths as a first priority and investigates the maths equivalent to phonics”, rather than concentrating on Sunak’s newly proposed maths qualification for individuals aged 16 to 18.

Cultivating “maths champions” in nursery 

Phillipson’s strategy revolves around providing additional training for primary school teachers who do not specialise in maths. The funding for this initiative is expected to come from the over £1.5 billion that Labour aims to generate by imposing VAT on private school fees and eliminating other tax breaks. Additionally, the party aims to support nurseries in cultivating “maths champions” to foster early learning before children enter formal schooling.

The proposed curriculum review would have the responsibility of  “bringing maths to life and directing teachers to show children how numeracy is used in the world around them.” This may include using concepts like ISAs to illustrate the concept of percentages.

Geoff Barton, who serves as the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, emphasised the importance of acknowledging that primary schools in England already provide high-quality maths education.

“Focusing on how numeracy is used in the outside world is sensible, particularly as students get older, and we support plans for a curriculum review to ensure pupils are being taught the skills that are most required in daily life,” Barton said.

Final thought

Labour’s “phonics for maths” scheme is a bold departure from traditional maths education, addressing numeracy challenges at an early age. It recognises the urgent need to equip students with practical mathematical skills. By doing so, it lays the foundation for a more mathematically confident society. This proposed reform has the potential to revolutionise how we prepare the next generation to navigate an increasingly complex and data-driven world. It’s a bold step towards a future where maths is not a source of anxiety, but a tool for empowerment and understanding.

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