From education to employment

Maths for a reason, not a requirement

Fleur Sexton

Fleur Sexton discusses maths to 18 and why young people should be learning maths for a reason, not just a requirement.

The latest plans to make maths compulsory up to age 18, will not make the UK a nation of mathematicians, but it will widen the attainment gap, impact the most disadvantaged young people in our schools and increase the number at risk of becoming NEETs (not engaged in education, employment or training). Maths to 18 has nothing to offer less academic students apart from further ‘failure’ adding unnecessary anguish to their school experience.

Each year, an average of 25% of students taking GCSE maths, fail to achieve a level 4 or above, of those only 1 in 5 who retake manage a pass. Retakes are a confidence crushing experience, especially for struggling students – another affirmation that they aren’t ‘good enough’. To then face an additional two years, would surely have nothing but a further negative impact on their self-esteem and aspirations.

Recent research from UCL London, shows that half of students underachieving at GCSE have been academically disadvantaged since they began school – if your behind your peers at five years old, you have a greater likelihood of failing at 16. The majority of these young people are from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with SEND.

Resources should be put in place to address this inequality

Surely resources should be put in place to address this inequality and ensure young people are equipped with basic numeracy, rather than extending the misery of maths to 18 for less academic students. Maybe it’s time to rethink how maths is taught, make it less of an abstract maze and help students understand its place in the real world.

Many students who choose to continue on to study A levels do not see themselves as mathematicians, they are not excited by abstract numbers, formulas or problem solving, maths does not have the same connection as other subjects – the subjects they have chosen to pursue.

The greatest obstruction to the maths to 18 plan?

Perhaps the greatest obstruction to the maths to 18 plan is a fundamental one – the current and continuing lack of maths teachers. Where will these additional teachers come from, if there are not enough to fill vacancies in our schools today?

Instead, this conversation could provide an opportune time to begin to look at young people’s school experience as a whole. Rather than battening down the choices young people have with their education, why not increase the options?

Tailor school experience around the student, increase vocational options at 14, widen horizons and aspirations by providing opportunities for volunteering in the community and work experience. Build the essential soft-skills needed for future employment – teamwork and communication, responsibility, time management, adaptability, problem solving etc. not necessarily skills learned within the traditional classroom setting.

Devolution could be a powerful tool

Devolution could be a powerful tool in improving educational outcomes for young people. Local authorities know the needs of communities within their area and the challenges schools face, so support could be targeted more effectively. Rather than grand sweeping brush strokes from the Government, we could look at the local details.

Young people, especially those from less affluent communities, have limited aspirations and  ideas about the variety of career paths available – whether they are knowledge-based, skill-based, entrepreneur-based or freelance. Often the jobs they are aware of are those done within their community, family and friendship circles. A more focussed approach to career counselling at school could help raise young people’s aspirations about their future opportunities.  

The reduction of available work experience and fewer opportunities to develop employability skills have contributed to the decline in technical and soft skills. We have a huge skills shortage in healthcare, hospitality, logistics and construction. Employers are far more likely to seek candidates with potential and provide training in particular aspects of the job, this could also include any additional maths employees need. This seems a far more logical approach and maths learned in a real-world context improves understanding and outcomes – maths for a reason, not a requirement.

A sound understanding of basic maths is important, but how much maths did you learn at school which you never use? Maths to 18 has nothing to offer non-academic students apart from further ‘failure’. Rather than adding additional anguish to their school experience. Surely the time would be much better spent building vocational skills, a sense of purpose and their place within their community.

By Fleur Sexton, Deputy Lieutenant West Midlands and CEO of PET-Xi

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