Rishi Sunak has stated that England is out of sync with other developed countries by not requiring young individuals to continue studying maths till the age of 18. However, making this a reality will require significant amounts of funding and teachers to achieve.
Previewing Sunak’s declaration, Number 10 claimed that England is one of the only nations in the world that does not mandate children to study some sort of maths subject until the age of 18, when countries like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway, and the United States do.
While some countries insist that children continue with maths in some form until they leave school, some of the countries mentioned above only implement the requirement on those in specific areas of secondary education or only in the initial stages.
A 2017 report commissioned by the Department for Education stated that Russia, Japan, and Sweden were among those where all children had to take maths, Canada, France, and Germany had "most" children, 81-94%, enrolled in maths. Further down came Singapore and Hong Kong, which score high in international comparisons of maths attainment.
In other countries, such as the US and Australia, curriculum requirements and compulsory education vary between states, making it difficult to draw national comparisons. However, what is certain is that England has a relatively low rate of school pupils continuing with maths past the age of 16. Approximately half of those remaining in English schools or colleges continue to take maths classes, split between those who take advanced "level 3" courses such as engineering or physics, and a larger group forced to do so because they failed to obtain a 4 or higher on their maths GCSE results.
That leaves approximately 200,000 students in each year group who have done well enough in GCSE maths but do not need to take courses requiring any form of maths teaching in years 12 and 13. However, that does not include "all children" – Catherine Sezen, the Association of Colleges education director, estimates that around 15% of the post-16 year groups are at work, on apprenticeships, or have dropped out of education, employment, or training entirely.
“It is right that the prime minister is taking an interest in education for 16- to 18-year-olds, but speeches are the easy part. Progress requires an implementation strategy founded on evidence, supported by appropriate funding, and not ignoring large sections of young people,” said Sezen.
Sunak is not the first minister to consider this issue, but in 2011 the government, led by Michael Gove as education secretary, asked Carol Vorderman to lead a task force on maths in schools. It recommended that students continue some form of maths instruction until the age of 18.
The government’s eventual response was a new post-16 certification for those who wished to pursue it, known as core maths, which focused on subjects like statistics rather than the heavy mechanics of A-levels. However, with no motivation to enroll in the program, students have mostly avoided it, with just 12,000 entering core maths qualifications in 2021.
By 2017, the government had commissioned another report, a review of post-16 mathematics by Sir Adrian Smith, a well-known statistician who now serves as president of the Royal Society.
"My conclusion is that we still lack the appropriate range of pathways and the capacity to deliver the necessary amount and variety of instruction," wrote Smith, adding that substantial changes would be necessary to make it feasible in a decade.
Five years later, and those changes have yet to materialize. The problems identified by Smith, such as a lack of resources and qualified maths teachers, remain. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, notes that recruitment is 5,000 below the government’s targets over the last ten years, with several shortages being filled by teachers without maths degrees.
In the meantime, funding for sixth forms and further education colleges — which would bear the brunt of extended maths instruction — remains 20% below that of other schools "for no good reason," according to Sezen.
Smith responded to Sunak’s statement, saying, "If we want our economy to flourish and young people to be prepared for well-paying jobs, we need a radical overhaul of our education system that includes all young people doing some level of maths until the age of 18. The prime minister recognizes this, and today’s announcement is encouraging."