Yesterday morning saw Britain’s commentariat in its favourite, cynically mocking, mode. In this case it was because we had been promised a Big Speech by the Prime Minister, and told that it would focus on maths. The big announcement was going to be that pupils would be required to learn mathematics right up to the age of 18. Cue derision from across the political and media landscape.
Labour weighed in early, saying that this would be an “empty promise” without a lot more maths teachers (who are famously in short supply). Others decided it was a bad idea because of their own dislike of maths when they were at school. People shared arguably quite simple maths questions being tackled by their kids and claimed they were hard. Mostly questions were asked about whether this was the moment to talk about maths, when the economy is in meltdown, inflation is rampant and the NHS is in crisis. As Isabel Hardman asked, is now the time for a maths lesson?
In the event, of course, Rishi Sunak delivered a different speech. He made five pledges about the economy, public services and immigration against which he wants to be judged, and relegated his thoughts on maths to a few short paragraphs and a press release. And the pundits mainly moved on to discuss whether his broader promises would be easy or difficult to keep; all that is really left today is a few wags asking whether the Government really wants people to be better able to tell how much they are being impoverished by the cost of living crisis.
So that leaves the question: was this announcement about maths a good or a bad idea? The Prime Minister clearly thinks it is vitally important, noting that the UK is in a minority amongst OECD countries in not requiring children to study some form of mathematics up to the age of 18. Everyone knows that not enough people study the STEM subjects, leaving us with an ageing population of much-needed engineers and a much broader challenge given that “data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job“. And the UK has a persistent numeracy problem, with up to one in four people said to have low levels of skill when it comes to maths. So surely this is was a timely and worthwhile policy proposal?
Let’s deal with those in turn. Was it well-timed? It’s very hard to say that it was, particularly when the Government briefed out in advance that this was the main focus of the Prime Minister’s New Year message. Given the headlines over Christmas and into the start of 2023 he was bound to be laughed at for being wonky and out of touch with the real concerns of the public. You’d have to question too whether this would have been a vote-winner at any time. The timing of this and the way it was handled has done nothing to counter pre-existing claims that Rishi Sunak is bad at politics.
But is it worthwhile? On balance, I think the answer to that is a qualified ‘yes’. What he set out yesterday was vague both on the details and the timeline: the Government will “commit to starting the work of introducing maths to 18 in this Parliament and finishing it in the next”, meaning that potentially not much will change before 2029. No answer was given to the question of who will teach maths to 16-18 year olds; nor was enough attention given to addressing the problem of actual innumeracy amongst a quarter of the population, which will require better interventions at a much younger age. Nor is it entirely clear that it will encourage more people to go on to study STEM subjects in further and higher education (although it might); conversely, this requirement may put some people off sixth form completely. But I’d argue that the idea still makes sense.
Anyone who has been in the world of work in the last few years must surely have been struck by how unconfident a lot of folk are when it comes to some important maths skills. These are not people who are innumerate, nor are they people working in engineering or other professions where STEM qualifications are needed. These are people working in sectors like mine (PR and comms), who have perfectly serviceable GCSE maths. But ask them to discern trends in numbers, to use percentages and ratios, to know if their work is profitable or not, or to see at a glance if a change will have a big or a small impact, and too many of them panic, glaze over, laugh nervously, move on.
Once upon a time this would have been fine. In my industry we would have been much more concerned about whether new recruits can write well (and there’s a discussion to be had about this, too, but not now!), have good judgement, are team players, can be creative, understand the political or media landscape, and so on. The financials could be left to the bean counters. But not now. Today everyone needs a good grasp of numbers.
After all, it’s very hard to rise up through the ranks without being able to manage – and it is impossible to manage without figures. How can you know if your turnover of staff is too high if you can’t work out your churn rate? What about margin and profitability? Is that pay rise affordable? How much should we pay the new recruits? All of these requires a degree of comfort with maths. At the same time, how can anyone be a serious advisor to a client without being able to talk about their financial performance, or understand the metrics they rely on? In the PR industry – and right across professional services – we are constantly clamouring for a seat at the top table. Good luck with that if you can’t speak the language of most big organisations: numbers and data.
So anything that builds up familiarity and confidence with numbers is supremely helpful for the modern workplace and today’s world – provided what is taught is practical, giving people skills they can use at work and at home (think statistics not abstract algebra). So Rishi Sunak deserves some applause. Is it good politics? Not really. Will he be able to deliver it? Remains to be seen. But is it actually a good and potentially important idea? Yes, it is.