Your IndustryMay 10 2023

'Sunak's 'more maths' isn't enough, we need more mentoring'

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'Sunak's 'more maths' isn't enough, we need more mentoring'
More than 8mn UK adults would fail maths tests designed for 9-year-olds. (Rawpixel/Envato Elements)

The prime minister’s recent (re)announcement of an ambition that all young people continue studying maths until 18 might seem ambitious, but probably does not go far enough.

As those in the finance world know too well, the reality of the adult world is that we all need maths until we die.

Financial literacy in particular is a vital foundation for surviving and thriving as adults in society, and all of our knowledge and skills need continual refreshing.

In terms of adult numeracy, we remain close to the bottom of OECD league tables, and more than 8mn of us would fail maths tests designed for 9-year-olds. 

While some good practices amongst further education colleges are emerging, we need to start earlier.

However, a focus on young people is a good starting point, and one that might help move the dial on what Rishi Sunak called our "anti-maths culture".

Maths is, of course, already compulsory to 16, when almost all young people take GCSE. After that, 34 per cent of our 16 to 18-year-olds continue to study for a maths qualification.

While the ‘maths to 18’ mantra might secure attention when it is given to the other two-thirds, the young people who really deserve more attention are, in fact, those already carrying on with maths after 16, through no choice of their own: the GCSE resitters. 

About a quarter of pupils fail to achieve a grade four in maths GCSE (commonly seen as a pass), and it is compulsory for them to keep on trying – either through retaking the GCSE or through a ‘functional skills’ programme. Both have depressing results, with only 20 per cent of resitters achieving grade four.

As the Centre for Education and Youth's current practice review for the Education Endowment Foundation is showing, the odds are stacked against them.

We should create a high-quality tutoring and mentoring offer for these young people.

They already feel that they have failed, but are forced to undertake exactly the same qualification, often with far less curriculum time, and teachers in further education colleges who often lack the subject specialism or departmental support to teach them well. 

What can be done to support these young people, both to succeed in and to enjoy maths?

Proposing a new deal

While some good practices amongst further education colleges are emerging, we need to start earlier.

Every secondary school will, by the age of 14 if not before, be able to identify those pupils who are at risk of failing maths GCSE, or even if they scrape through, are unlikely to be secure in their numeracy or ever want to go near the subject again.