Shivani SenResearch and Policy Analyst, Education Commission
Policy and Research Analyst, Shivani Sen expresses her views on Rishi Sunak’s speech on his plans for education in the UK for 2023.
4th of January saw Prime Minister Rishi Sunak deliver his first major speech of 2023, highlighting “people’s priorities” for the country in the year ahead. The speech discussed his plans for education, healthcare and the economy, moving forward.
Education as Focus
Aiming to cut NHS waiting lists, curbing inflation amid cost-of-living crisis, reducing national debt, boosting economic growth, and stopping migrant boats from crossing the English Channel, a notable discussion was around Sunak’s policy to make mathematics compulsory for pupils up till the age of 18.
This decision comes with the aim of rivaling the best education systems in the world and “reimagining the country’s approach to numeracy”. Prioritising math education is seen by the Prime Minister as key in and preparing for a future job market where he sees maths taking the center stage as jobs in the future will require more analytical skills than ever before.
On this topic, Sunak said: “Letting our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down. We need to go further. I am now making numeracy a central objective of our education system.”
With only over half of 16-19 year old pupils in England studying maths, the government aims to invest an additional £2 billion in funding to ensure schools provide the highest level of education. While the government is still looking at its options in terms of the path forward, making maths as a compulsory A-Level has not been committed to yet.
Sunak went on to express his personal sentiments that build the backbone for this policy decision.
“This is personal for me. Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive. It’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.”Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister
Among the OECD countries, the UK adds to the list of outliers that do not require compulsory maths education for all students up to the age of 18. With this policy decision, Sunak envisions that individuals will feel more confident in later stages in life in managing activities of savings, mortgages etc.
Criticisms of the speech
The Prime Minister’s decision has raised questions about the emphasis placed on math and its perceived importance in determining a country’s economic success. While maths is an important subject, community leaders and members have argued that it should not be the sole focus of education.
Sunak’s ignorance of matters within the education system – ranging from its archaic curriculum, increase in inequality divide due to the pandemic, lack of teacher training and support for children with special education needs – and instead his notable focus on maths, has not been taken well. The Prime Minister also made no mention of increasing teaching staff to meet his ambitious targets. With almost half of secondary schools using non-specialist teachers for math lessons, making mathematics mandatory for all students does not promise a comfortable picture for students with learning disabilities, to say the least.
Columnist for The Guardian Simon Jenkins expressed his views saying: There may indeed be a Hardy or a Turing deep inside anyone, as there may be a concert pianist or an astrophysicist. That is what specialist teachers are for. It does not require compulsory maths to 18.
Sunak has also been criticised for his lack of focus on the nature of current curriculum that is belived by many to be characterised by rote learning methods that commit more to memory than to understanding. Additionally, an absence of conversation by the Prime Minister around mental-health and well-being of pupils amid the current cost of living pressures that – invariably trickle down into education outcomes -does not paint an ideal picture for pupil’s well-being as a government priority.
In addition, with Ofsted’s most recent report highlighting pandemic-worsened attainment gaps, as well as reports of students being removed from classes due to ‘additional needs’ that classes do not have the capacity or training to provide for, Sunak’s a compulsory policy measure will only worsen students’ outcome indicators.
Further, with teachers in England currently being balloted on whether to take strike action due to pay and staff shortages, the government might see teachers respond to pressures by leaving work, expressing workers’ dissatisfaction in upsettingly similar ways to current NHS strikes and walk-outs.
Kevin Courtney, Joint boss of the National Education Union expressed his concern to BBC Radio.
“The Government has cut teacher pay every year since 2010 and his Government’s policies for teacher recruitment aren’t bringing in maths teachers, or any other teachers, in sufficient numbers. They have missed their target for maths teachers in every one of the last 12 years.”Kevin Courtney, Joint boss of the National Education Union
While it is worth noting that education stands tall on the government’s agenda, its direction and focus do not rest firmly on foundations of equality across diverse student groups. A policy that makes maths compulsory becomes exclusionary by targeting mainstream education provision and approaches with little focus on how such a subject will beneficially impact children with disabilities. With petitions and public demands currently unanswered around upskilling teachers, providing funding to local authorities for SEND support, implementing efficient resource allocation to reduce pandemic-created education divides, it begs to question why the government, moving forward, would not choose to not address such pressing matters and improve existing policy . The oncoming economic slowdown and its lasting repercussions makes the focus on marginalised students, through levelling-up, more pressing. Levelling up shouldn’t just be about increasing outcomes and numbers through new policies but also increasing outcomes equally for everyone through improved implementation of existing policies.
Making mathematics compulsory without focusing on how such measures will impact students with SEND who are already being failed by systems that do not provide them with adequate support, may prove to be more regressive than progressive for many students in the long run.