Too many people hate maths for Rishi Sunak’s plans to make everyone study the subject until 18 to work, experts have told MPs.
Giving evidence at the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee on Tuesday, leading figures in the sector warned that a large proportion of both teachers and pupils feel “anxious, worried and confused” about maths, with some describing it as “the worst thing imaginable”.
They said the Prime Minister’s plans to make maths compulsory for all students until the age of 18 would require major education reform and a detailed strategy for “addressing negative attitudes towards” the subject.
Sir Martin Taylor, chair of the Royal Society’s advisory committee on mathematics education, said that “40 per cent of students doing maths typically feel like they lack confidence in maths at some point, 20 per cent feel they are anxious about maths most of the time, and then there’s 10 per cent that just hate mathematics”.
He suggested that the UK has a “cultural” disdain for the subject compared to other countries such as France, where maths is revered “because it’s seen as the gateway to success”.
“I’ve never, ever heard people discuss mathematics in a positive way at a dinner party. I would never meet someone who would be ready to say: ‘Oh I hate Jane Austen.’ But they’re very happy to say, ‘I hate mathematics.’”
Niamh Sweeney, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), added that around a third of children fail to achieve a standard pass in their maths GCSE each year, and that forcing them to take the subject until 18 would serve little purpose.
“There is a real alienation and disengagement among young people about maths, and that starts a lot earlier than GCSE,” she told the Committee. “If you have someone struggling with maths, just making them do more maths doesn’t necessarily make them enjoy it.”
Sam Sims, chief executive of charity National Numeracy, added that teachers are similarly apprehensive about maths, meaning the Government “would struggle” to recruit enough staff to teach the subject to all students until 18.
He cited a recent survey showing that around a third of trainee teachers use negative words to describe maths, including “nervous, anxious, worried, confused, panic, stupid, defeated, terrified, or sick”.
Mr Sims said the Government would have to focus more resources on tackling the general apathy towards maths across the board before rolling out an expansion of the subject within schools.
“When the Prime Minister made the announcement… we saw this “argh” on social media about this being the worst thing imaginable about having to do maths until 18,” he said.
“We can’t just expect that to be addressed overnight. We have to do something about it and that must start much younger… Without addressing negative attitudes towards maths, we’re going to struggle.”
Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and member of the Education Select Committee, suggested teachers’ dislike for maths was also rubbing off on students.
“It kind of says to young people it’s ok to be bad at maths, and it’s ok to write yourselves off and you’ll never need it again,” she said.
Experts also warned that the current recruitment and retention crisis in the education sector could see teachers specialised in other subjects dragged in to teach post-16 maths. They suggested this would likely reduce the quality of maths teaching, and thereby undermine the aims of expanding the subject until 18.
Sir Martin said: “Your PE teacher, poor chap, he’s got to teach a subject he doesn’t really know, he’s not very confident. Think what that does to the children — they absorb that lack of confidence. There’s an anxiety.”
He claimed that most teachers would “roll their eyes” at the plans “because we haven’t got enough teachers to teach the mandatory maths that we have at the moment.”
Ms Sweeney suggested that other parts of the curriculum, in particular the arts and humanities, would suffer under plans to expand maths until 18.
“We are in the depths of a retention and recruitment crisis. Our history and PE teachers are teaching other subjects and our curriculum is being narrowed. DT, music, art and drama – all of those are being concentrated [for] English and maths because we don’t have enough teachers in those areas,” she said.
Ms Sweeny suggested that “just sticking [maths] in for an extra hour a week” would fail to achieve anything.
The Government has missed its target to recruit new maths teachers every year over the past decade, with the figure dropping to as low as 64 per cent in recent years.
A report published in November by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that almost two-thirds of schools struggling with teacher shortages have been forced to call in non-specialist teachers to lead maths lessons.
Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 and colleges specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers were “actually very disappointed” when Mr Sunak announced plans to make maths mandatory until the final year of school.
Appearing before the Education Select Committee on Tuesday, he said the Prime Minister “still hasn’t consulted the Department for Education on the plans”.
Mr Sunak announced last month that all children in England will be made to study maths up until the age of 18. He said giving young people more advanced numeracy training would leave them better placed for “data-intensive jobs of the future” and help them manage their finances as adults.
The Government has yet to produce details of how mandatory maths until 18 would fit into school timetables, or whether students will be formally examined in the subject.
The Prime Minister said he would spell out more details in due course, though he conceded that the push to make maths compulsory until 18 was unlikely to come into action before the next general election, which is expected to be held in 2024.
Experts told MPs on Tuesday that the Government should consider measures including a “passport-style” proof of numeracy skills or the European Baccalaureate system rather than integrating maths into the current A-Level system.
Ms Sweeney said: “You need to think about more than just saying things like world-class, and world-beating and gold standard, and put in some world-class infrastructure to support that.”