You won’t improve numeracy in the UK without first investing in teachers

|4 min read

In an ideal world, all children would have access to high-quality, broad maths teaching throughout their school career, but without enough teachers, how will the PM’s plans to extend maths teaching work?

With the new year in full swing, a subject close to our hearts took centre stage in the Prime Minister’s first speech of 2023. Rishi Sunak proposed compulsory maths should be taught until the age of 18, instead of the current 16, in the hope of raising numeracy standards across the UK.

Unsurprisingly, the PM has come under fire from some critics who argue his focus on older pupils is misplaced and instead should be on how maths is taught in the Early Years.

Ananya Bhattacharya, writing in Quartz, cites previous comments by Sir Adrian Smith, chief executive of the Alan Turing Institute, in support of this view. “The poor performance of GCSE resit students often reflects fundamental issues at earlier stages of mathematics teaching,” Sir Adrian said in a 2017 report to the government.

The numeracy problem in the UK is down to a culture that “teaches to the test,” leaving children with a shallow understanding of maths, he said.

Teaching models that foster a deeper understanding

A blog post on the government’s Education Hub provides some backing for Sunak’s new policy, saying “there are still too many people who are being held back by poor maths” at a time when “our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.”

While further details on the PM’s plan will be set out in due course, the government is exploring existing routes as well as more innovative options, according to the blog post, which goes on to praise the effectiveness of teaching models that “foster a deeper understanding of the subject” such as mastery teaching and the Singaporean maths model.

Editor’s Note:

We couldn’t agree more!

Statistics show 8 million adults in the UK have the numeracy skills of primary school children. Around the world, studying maths until the age of 18 is already the norm in many developed countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway and the US. But is this the right course of action for children in the UK?

Writing in iNews, mathematician and author Hannah Fry agrees something must be done to support future generations in a data-driven world, but says forcing children to study a subject they already hate will only “traumatise teenagers – not transform Britain.”

Ensure maths is taught across the curriculum

Instead of forcing children to study maths, the government should make it a priority to update its “archaic” maths syllabus so that it reflects the expectations of modern society, she says. In keeping with our latest blog series on cross-curricular mastery Hannah urges policy makers to ensure maths is taught across the curriculum.

“I want to see the potential of data wrangling demonstrated in History, or quantitative analysis of population growth in Geography. Or even how numbers can be used to create a visualisation in Art,” she says.

In an ideal world, all children would have access to high-quality, broad maths teaching throughout their school career, but Hannah identifies a key issue — without enough teachers, how will the PM’s plans to extend maths teaching work?

The UK is facing a national teacher shortage and support must be given to teachers to ensure they have the training and tools to help every child master an understanding and love of maths. “Unless the Government invests in teachers who want to instil this love of the subject into students, Sunak’s proposal is going to fall flat,” she says.

Advancing all learners is positively attainable

We believe the widespread adoption of the mastery approach — with its emphasis on whole-class learning, the use of high-quality resources and commitment to teacher training — offers the best hope for nurturing a life-long love of maths.

The ability to advance all learners and build pupils’ confidence in the classroom is positively attainable for teachers with the right support and resources, and must be of paramount concern. Fostering subject knowledge and a love of maths amongst pupils from an early age will set tomorrow’s global citizens on a path towards success.