Rishi Sunak’s ‘Maths Reform’ Isn't So Much About India As Political Engineering

The 'Maths to 18' policy is a watered-down version of what was planned during last summer’s Tory leadership election

4 min read

For most Indian and other East Asian families, Maths and Science are an imperative part of children’s education, so when UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced his 'Maths to 18' policy earlier this month, many attributed its importance to his own upbringing and Indian roots. But does it also include some political number-crunching leading to the local elections in May?

Mr Sunak said, "This is personal for me. Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive.” He added: “We’ve got to change this anti-maths mindset. We’ve got to start prizing numeracy for what it is—a key skill every bit as essential as reading.”

In fact, researchers have pointed out that "cultural and social factors" may be behind the strong scores in East Asian countries. A study by researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London found that England's cleverest pupils can match their peers in leading East Asian countries at the age of 10 but then fall behind, suggesting that more needed to be done to ensure the most able pupils can keep pace with the highest achievers in other countries.

The study noted: "In East Asian cultures, education has historically been highly valued. This can be seen not only in teachers' high salaries but also in the heavy investment of families in private tutoring services." No one can miss the advertisements for various private coaching classes while travelling through the streets of Indian cities.

Does a Mere Policy Change in Math Education Add Up?

According to a 2021-2022 government study on the percentage of pupils getting a grade 5 or above in Maths and English, the highest performers are Asians, among whom Indians are at 72.4%, followed by Bangladeshis at 60.6% and Pakistanis at 50.3%.

Maths literacy has been a matter of concern for both the Conservatives and Labour party for several years. It is not a new idea. In 2011, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair set up a task force to recommend a way forward for maths education in primary and secondary schools in the country. While Mr Sunak stressed, "One of the biggest changes in mindset we need in education today is to reimagine our approach to numeracy," the Opposition Labour said it would be "an empty pledge" if they could not recruit more maths teachers.

The current 'Maths to 18' policy is a watered-down version of what was planned during last summer’s Tory leadership election. While saying all students up to the age of 18 will study maths, it, in no way, entails studying A-level maths.

Maths is already a compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils in England up to the age of 16, so what will the new policy entail? The Department of Education Hub states, “When pupils start secondary school, they are expected to have mastered the basics of the subject, ready to move on to tackling more complex problems as they start to prepare for GCSEs."

“To make sure young people have the core maths skills they need to succeed in life, pupils need to have a grade 4 or above in their maths GCSE by age 16, or continue to work towards that as part of their post-16 study.” So basically, it still remains the same, but a student gets a greater chance to improve the grades.

In a world where technology is progressing in leaps and bounds, more jobs will require analytical and data skills than ever before. Unfortunately, currently, eight million adults in the UK have maths skills lower than those expected of a nine-year-old. So, the government hopes 'Maths to 18' will support young people to start adulthood with the skills necessary to thrive in both work and home life.

The government is currently setting up an Expert Advisory Group to look into details and implementation. For the lack of maths teachers, the government plans to develop a new maths National Professional Qualification (NPQ) to support the professional development of maths teachers in primary schools from February 2024.


Sunak's Maths Policy Divides Sections In UK

Criticism of the government’s policy has come from several quarters including Maths Whizz Carol Vorderman former Countdown star, who has, for years, promoted maths at all levels. She slammed the government saying, “The system is not working for that.” She said, "People are coming out of the education system innumerate for a whole host of reasons. I support teachers but in primary school, most teachers, almost all, gave up maths at 16 at GCSE level." She called it “a bit of an elephant in the room of education because they’re a bit fearful of teaching it."

The question is also does the Prime Minister’s 'Maths to 18' announcement come with the expectation of political dividends? Or is it a Tory effort to divert attention from the multiple strikes over pay and work conditions as the country buckles under a cost-of-living crisis that has brought swathes of the economy to a standstill?

Director of the Good Law Project, Jo Maugham, turned to Twitter writing: "If his maths was better, maybe he'd understand that you can't run a National Health Service if you are 50,000 nurses short and are cutting their pay."

Members of the Opposition, however, believe by this announcement, Mr Sunak has broken the ‘purdah’ rules that prevent big policy announcements ahead of elections. Ministers are meant to steer clear of publicising new policies in the run-up to elections, to stop the civil service being used to promote materials that could boost the governing party’s chances, giving them an unfair, state-funded advantage. The guidance adds, “Care also needs to be taken in relation to the announcement of UK government decisions which could have a bearing on the elections."


Economic Concern or Election Calculations?

The Lib Dems have written to the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to report Mr Sunak for breaking the 'purdah’ rules, demanding an immediate investigation into this announcement, and said, “The Prime Minister has serious questions to answer about whether his government ignored the rules.

“This government knows that the writing is on the wall ahead of the local elections this May and so they are intent on bending the rules to do whatever they can to salvage seats.”

In this case, it appears 'Maths to 18' is more about Mr Sunak’s political interests than his Indian roots. More about political number-crunching than an Indian love for Maths.

(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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