Rishi Sunak’s maths plan is impossible without a plan to recruit more teachers
I listened with interest to the speeches from Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, both setting out their priorities for 2023. The Prime Minister’s plan to introduce compulsory maths for pupils until the age of 18 especially caught my attention.
When I became chair of the Education Select Committee back in 2001, Labour had just won our second election victory, promising to expand higher education and improve STEM attainment for 11 to 14 year olds. By the end of my time as chair in 2010, schools had achieved record levels of numeracy and there were 36,000 more teachers than in 1997.
We lack the capacity to deliver the necessary volume and range of teaching
How did we go about this radical improvement? While in office, Labour implemented several policies targeting achievement in mathematics. The National Numeracy Strategy was delivered, and across the nation we expanded access to higher education. In the capital, the London Challenge transformed the learning of thousands of young people. Across the United Kingdom we made maths more accessible and increased standards, setting a generation on the path to success in meeting the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Now our current Prime Minister wants to create his own legacy for our nation’s children in the form of his plan to make maths compulsory until 18. Timetabling more hours for data and statistics will prepare students for a future contending with quantum computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence, in his view.
We do need to equip our children to meet that future, but we can only do it if our plans are feasible. Sir Adrian Smith's review of post-16 maths education in 2017 was clear: we do not have enough qualified maths teachers, and we lack the capacity to deliver the necessary volume and range of teaching.
Teacher recruitment must be addressed — it needs to be an attractive profession with better pay and good working conditions. Post-16 in particular needs more funding for recruitment and retention of maths teachers. We can start by extending recruitment incentives from schools to colleges. In the short-term the government might even need to look at attracting retired teachers back on a part time basis.
Fundamentally, to be a viable plan for education, the PM’s proposals need to be properly resourced. Addressing shortfalls in teacher numbers is only a part of that. Schools and colleges will need a broader investment to facilitate learning and prepare the workforce of tomorrow.
Education technology, or edtech, is a huge opportunity for the government to make smart investments. Classrooms fully utilising edtech will allow our schools and colleges to unlock students’ vast potential by immersing them in technology that will be indispensable as they continue in life. There are plenty of maths edtech products, and the government must do more to work with schools and colleges to ensure access to the best and most helpful interventions. If the PM needs any help, I’ve long suggested the government talks to the Open University (a great Labour triumph), which is a leading expert in this area.
The Prime Minister wants us to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. We must first reimagine our approach to the education system. It must be treated with the respect and value it deserves, recognising that it’s a fundamental social institution which develops, prepares and shapes children for their entire lives.
The formidable challenge for the Prime Minister is in building viable foundations for our education system to thrive into the coming decade and beyond.
Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.
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