Social Justice

Rishi Sunak's drive to extend maths until 18 will 'set children up to fail'

Rishi Sunak plans to extend maths until children turn 18, but campaigners warn it could be damaging for disadvantaged children

maths/ sunak

Rishi Sunak at the London Screen Academy in Islington where he met students and staff and delivered his 'Maths to 18' speech. Image: Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street

Children are battling to concentrate because they are so hungry and many teachers are not paid enough to cover rent, but Rishi Sunak’s big plan to shake up the education system is to make maths compulsory until 18. 

The prime minister crowed that the plans will “bring us one step closer to changing our anti-maths mindset and ensuring every young person has the skills needed for a successful future”. But campaigners and charities have said Sunak is “out of touch”. 

Laurence Guinness, the chief executive at the Childhood Trust, said: “If the prime minister is serious about improving children’s life chances then why doesn’t he do something to help the 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK?”

“Whilst undeniably important, focusing on maths as the solution for career success shows just how out of touch he is when vast numbers of children are worried that they’re not going to have anything to eat this evening.”

More than 80 per cent of primary school teachers polled by the charity Chefs in Schools in October said children are coming to school hungry because their families cannot afford food. A quarter said children are skipping lunch entirely due to poverty – with some eating rubbers or stealing food just to have something to eat. 

“With teachers themselves struggling to eat properly and pay their rent or mortgages, it’s this government’s broken economy and unfair welfare policies that are responsible for setting up disadvantaged children to fail,” Guinness added. 

Teachers have set up food banks in schools to make sure children don’t go hungry and many of them are struggling to cope with the cost of living crisis themselves. More than a fifth (21 per cent) of households where teachers or teaching assistants live are struggling with poverty, according to recent research from the Food Foundation

“Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education that I was so fortunate to receive,” the prime minister said. It might be worth adding he was head boy at Winchester College, a world-famous independent boarding school. It currently costs more than £45,000 a year to board. Two thirds of his cabinet also went to private school. 

Sunak remains adamant that our lack of schooling in maths is the problem. “I won’t sit back and allow this cultural sense that it’s okay to be bad at maths to put our children at a disadvantage,” he said. “We’ve got to change this. We’ve got to value maths and what it can do for our children’s futures. Giving our children a world class education is the single most important thing we can do. It’s the closest thing we have to a silver bullet: the best economic policy, the best social policy, the best moral policy.” 

The UK’s numeracy levels are significantly below the average for developed countries, according to charity National Numeracy. Around half (49 per cent) of the UK’s working-age population have the expected numeracy levels of a primary school leaver. 

And around 30 per cent of school-leavers aged 18 to 24 feel anxious about using maths and numbers – meaning millions lack confidence and that could put them at a disadvantage in their careers. Poor numeracy is estimated to cost the UK economy up to £25 billion a year.

That is because the average worker in the UK with low numeracy skills earns around 6.5 per cent less than they would if they had a basic level of numeracy skills, or the equivalent of around £1,600 a year. And there are an estimated 16 million people with low numeracy skills in the UK. 

But although National Numeracy welcomes Sunak’s drive to get more children learning maths, the charity also warns that enforcing more maths without reforming the current system could be damaging for children. 

Around 175,000 children fail their maths GCSE every year, the charity estimates. Under current rules, pupils who fail to get a grade four or above have to resit the exam until they achieve a higher grade. In 2022 the resit pass rate was 20 per cent.

“For very understandable reasons, these young people typically emerge demoralised, fearful and anxious when it comes to maths, and wanting to avoid it in future at any cost,” Sam Sims, the chief executive of National Numeracy, said. “So, enforcing more classroom maths for those people already scarred by their experience may compound the problem.”

Instead, National Numeracy is calling for a “radical overhaul” to ensure children are guaranteed the best education in the early years and primary education until adulthood. 

“We believe a much more radical overhaul is needed and that the ‘fundamental change’ our education system needs begins a lot earlier than 16 to 18,” Sims added. “Building confidence with numbers from an early age and establishing a belief that every one of us can improve our skills, is key to addressing the issue of low numeracy.”

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, agreed that changes must start with the early years. He said one of the best ways of “skilling up our economy” is to ensure all parents can access early years services that are focused on giving children the best start in life.

 “Our national ambitions will be undermined if too many of our children are too hungry to learn, or worried sick about poverty or being homeless,” he said. “As the number of children living in poverty continues to rise, we need much more targeted support for children in low-income families.”

There are also practical issues for teachers, who are already stretched to the brink. “There are not enough teachers to deliver the prime minister’s vision,” Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said. 

“His government’s policies for teacher recruitment are not bringing in enough new teachers. There is also a crisis of teacher retention as a result of low pay and excessive workload. The government needs to urgently get a grip of this workforce crisis in education.” 

The prime minister said there would be a drive to recruit and train maths teachers. But the government has actually cut its recruitment target for maths teachers by 39 per cent since 2020, according to the NEU. 

“Parents and school staff will be left scratching their heads at this latest announcement from the prime minister,” Bousted added. “Taken as a whole, the government’s policies on education simply don’t add up.”

The starting salary for teachers in England is also due to rise to £30,000 a year by September 2023. The government has offered a £1,000 one-off payment this year and a 4.3 per cent pay rise for most staff next year, but this has been rejected by unions. 

Teachers’ salaries in England fell by an average of 11 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2022, after taking inflation into account, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

James Reeves, a senior advocacy manager of the education charity Football Beyond Borders, agreed. “Teacher retention, school attendance, severe absence and rises in exclusions mean that, for the most part, this feels like a policy focus which distracts from more urgent problems facing young people in schools.”

Reeves said young people are not being supported to succeed in their GCSE maths, let alone study it until 18. He added: “We need to develop curious learners if maths or any other subject is to be taken seriously. Asking students to study maths for longer if they don’t like maths is not a solution, just another challenge for schools to overcome. 

“We need an approach which centres every young person’s individual needs and involves the guidance of teachers and role models to help solve the challenges that the government has identified.”

One in three young people do not have the basic maths skills they need to pass their GCSE, according to Impetus, which aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people. 

Steve Haines, the director of public affairs at Impetus, said: “Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely not to pass as their better off peers and very few ever catch up.”

He called on Sunak to prioritise these basic skills by extending the post-16 tuition fund, which is funding to support small group tuition for students aged 16 to 19 in English, maths and other subjects. At the moment, it is only for students from the most economically deprived areas of the country. 

There are also concerns Sunak’s plans could “drive a bigger wedge between academic and vocational students”, as expressed by Paul Anderson, the chief executive of Voyage Youth, a social justice charity empowering young black people in London. 

“We are concerned the government has chosen to invest in this when many of the young people we work with are still suffering from the mental health effects of the pandemic,” Anderson remarked. He said more urgent reforms are needed elsewhere in the education system, such as in mental health support, expanding black history studies and removing police from schools.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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