Rishi Sunak puts maths at the heart of his vision for Britain

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Rishi Sunak is set to announce on Wednesday that he wants all pupils to study maths until the age of 18 in a major speech aimed at setting out his big picture vision for Britain.  

The Prime Minister will argue that too many of the country’s children are being “let down” by leaving school without the numeracy skills to prosper in the workplace.

“This is personal for me”, Mr Sunak is expected to say, as he makes a shake-up of education beyond the age of 16 one of the defining priorities of his early tenure in Number 10.

The speech will go beyond maths, however, and is likely to be seen as an attempt to answer questions about what is driving the Sunak premiership beyond fire-fighting crises.

While the address has been in the pipeline for a while, it was on Tuesday unexpectedly moved forward. That means it will come before a speech by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, on Thursday.

A Labour source said: “In their desperation to ensure Sunak’s speech doesn’t happen after Keir’s, No 10 have revealed they have nothing to offer the country except… double maths.

“As the health service falls to pieces after 12 years of Tory rule, criminals terrorise the streets, and working people worry how their wages will last the month, the country is entitled to ask: is this it?”

PM under mounting pressure

The intervention comes with Mr Sunak under mounting pressure to do more to solve a stand-off with striking public sector unions and amid soaring NHS waiting times.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman dismissed calls on Tuesday for more NHS funding to ease the winter crunch – £3.3 billion extra was announced in November – and declined to say the strains on healthcare amounted to a “crisis”.

Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, summoned health chiefs on Tuesday and urged them to be more “innovative” in discharging patients from overstretched hospitals.

Meanwhile, Wednesday will mark the second of five days of consecutive strikes on the railways, with industrial action from ambulance staff and nurses due later in the month. 

Just one in 10 train services is expected to run on Thursday, the worst single day of strike action during the working week for decades in what has been dubbed “Tragic Thursday”. Mick Lynch, the RMT boss, on Tuesday said rail strikes could last to the summer.

Government proposals to tighten strike laws are close to being finalised while a plan to bring down NHS backlogs in the medium term is due to be published by the end of the month.

Mick Lynch, the head of the RMT, has said rail strikes could last until the summer

Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

But Downing Street insiders are also keen for Mr Sunak, still less than three months into his premiership after taking over from Liz Truss, to outline his wider vision and principles.

Mr Sunak will say of his maths policy: “This is personal for me. Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive.

“And it’s the single most important reason why I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.

“Thanks to the reforms we’ve introduced since 2010, and the hard work of so many excellent teachers, we’ve made incredible progress.

“With the right plan – the right commitment to excellence – I see no reason why we cannot rival the best education systems in the world.”

The drive will only directly affect pupils in England. Education policy is fully devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, meaning they can decide whether to adopt a similar approach.

It will also not amount to making all English pupils study A-level maths.

Other qualifications such as Core Maths, T-Levels or “more innovative options” could be used instead, according to a Downing Street official, with routes still being explored.

Requirement already followed by many countries

The UK is an outlier when it comes to not requiring children to study some form of maths up to 18. A majority of OECD countries demand it, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, Japan, Norway and the USA.

Around eight million adults in England have the numeracy skills of primary school children, according to Downing Street, with only half of 16 to 19-year-olds studying maths.

No 10 accepts that the goal may not be reached before the next general election, expected in 2024. The aim is for it to be implemented across this Parliament and the next.

That means the policy could be abandoned if Labour wins the next election, a real possibility given the party enjoys an opinion poll lead of around 20 percentage points on the Tories.

Mr Sunak will say: “One of the biggest changes in mindset we need in education today is to reimagine our approach to numeracy.

“Right now, just half of all 16 to 19-year-olds study any maths at all. Yet in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before.

“And letting our children out into the world without those skills, is letting our children down”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is important that the Government sets out the evidence for extending maths for all students to the age of 18 before embarking upon a significant change affecting future generations.

“It may improve employability and the ability to cope with modern life, as the Prime Minister suggests, but it is important that this is based on solid research and is not a pet project.

“We would also want to hear how such a policy would avoid exacerbating the already-chronic national shortage of maths teachers.”

Source: telegraph.co.uk