Messing with maths

Do Rishi’s plans multiply education problems?

Maths revision was much in mind at the annual conferences of our two main political parties. But while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants mathematical change at the top end of the school education system, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, says Tory tactics don’t add up, and a new way with maths is needed from the time children enter primary school. The Sunak plan for more maths is part of a much wider scheme that would see A-levels and T-levels scrapped in favour of a qualification called the Advanced British Standard (ABS). The new format would include some compulsory English and maths classes for students until the age of 18. The Prime Minister sees this as a way of tackling England’s underperformance and skills shortages in mathematics, but Labour and education professionals are unimpressed. Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has said in interviews that the government proposals were “out of touch” with immediate problems in the education system – from recruitment and retention of teachers to crumbling school buildings. And Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the Nation Education Union (NEU) said that Sunak is doubling down on “pie-in the-sky” education policies, adding that there was “no magic wand to create English and maths teachers in sufficient numbers to educate 11 to 16-year-olds – let alone at A-level too.” By its own admission the government acknowledges that the proposed ABS is a long-term project, which might not be fully up and running until the late 2030s. Labour, meanwhile, says it would replace the Sunak plan with improved maths teaching for younger children and “real world” numeracy lessons for pupils in England. The proposal would include a “phonics for maths” programme for early years and primary school classes. Phillipson says Labour will “bring maths to life for the next generation”, using practical examples drawn from household budgeting, currency exchange rates for tourists, sports league tables and cookery recipes. She told the party conference: “Maths is the language of the universe, the underpinning of our collective understanding. It cannot be left till the last years of school.”

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