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Education Minister Says He Has "Struggled With Maths" Since Childhood

Education minister Robert Halfon (Alamy)

3 min read

Education minister Robert Halfon has admitted that he has “struggled with maths” since childhood, and is keen to see Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's reforms on numeracy education support students who have faced similar difficulties.

Harlow MP Halfon, who holds the 'Skills' brief in the Department for Education, told PoliticsHome numbers can look like “fog” to him and that issues with numeracy “definitely gives you disadvantages in life”.

He believed that some people wear their lack of maths skills like a "badge of honour", and was keen to dispel such attitudes in order to tackle the issue. 

“I've always struggled with maths and numbers since I was a child,” he said. 

“I struggle to read spreadsheets and graphs to this day. Sometimes when I look at a spreadsheet it looks like fog.” 

He explained that DfE colleagues will “put [the numbers included in] tables into words for me just so I understand it much better” as with words he is “completely different” and can “speed read”. 

A former chair of the education select committee Halfon believes that maths skills matter because it "affects every part of your life". 

“It matters because when you get a bill, if you struggle with numbers, you don't understand what that bill is," he continued. 

“You don't understand the tax, extra VAT that you might pay. You don't understand monthly payments.

“It's bad because when you get your pension on your wage slip or whatever, it's hard you have to ask somebody to explain it to you, or how much tax you are paying. 

“It affects you in every part of your life.” 

Halfon's personal experience struggling with numeracy has bolstered his support for a new drive by Sunak to expand maths teaching. Last month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a review to consider how students might be able to study maths to 18, without making an A-Level compulsory.

At the time, Sunak criticised what he called a “cultural issue” with how maths is perceived, and said that it needs to be “prized” as a “key skill”. 

Halfon agreed it would have benefitted him to have been taught maths until age 18.

"I should have been asked to do some kind of refresher course every year, and not just to 18 in my view, but even at university," he added. 

“Because they should have identified that clearly this is a problem for me. Instead I was allowed to stop it and never do maths again.” 

But teaching unions have warned that there are “not enough teachers” for the plans to be delivered as schools continue to struggle with recruitment and retention. 

Halfon dismissed such concerns, and said that there is a "significant amount of resources" going into the subject including bursaries for maths and science teachers. 

"There's targeted maths support and funding as well," he explained.

"So given the economic climate that we're in and massive pressure on public services, on funding energy bills, and so on."

The National Education Union has said that “aspirations are all well and good” but that plans will remain incomplete “unless the fundamental issues affecting education are addressed”. 

Dr Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary at the NEU told PoliticsHome: “The government needs to urgently get a grip of this workforce crisis in education by addressing in the first instance the issue of low pay and excessive workload. 

“Aspirations are all well and good but that is what they will remain unless the fundamental issues affecting education are addressed”. 

The comments come on National Numeracy Day, marking its sixth year and run by the National Numeracy charity. 


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