A couple of weeks ago the Prime Minister set out key areas of focus for the government for 2023 and beyond. What he set out covered inflation, the public finances, economic growth, NHS waiting lists and small boats.
But ahead of the speech itself the headlines were all about one measure: the intent to have everyone continuing with some maths up to age 18.
That may have surprised a few people. But improving numeracy is one of the best ways to improve life skills, and life opportunities, for young people.
When Professor Alison Wolf carried out her review of vocational education and qualifications for the then coalition government, she noted the enormous ‘premium’ in the jobs market of maths and English.
As Education Secretary, I was repeatedly told that these days, there is hardly any job that doesn’t call for some maths, and indeed digital skills too.
The UK is one of the few rich countries in the world that does not require children to study some form of maths up to 18, with about eight million adults in England reported to have the numeracy skills of primary schoolchildren.
It’s important to distinguish between maths and numeracy. There are around 26 types of maths, including algebra and geometry, which we all recognise as ‘school maths’. Numeracy is the ability to understand and use basic maths in real-life situations, at home, work or school.
It is the skills needed for everyday life, managing money and household budgets, reading a train timetable, weighing ingredients, measuring medicine and more.
Back in 2011, the Skills for Life survey, commissioned to provide a profile of the national’s adult literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, found that large numbers of adults in England did not have the numeracy level expected from secondary education. International comparisons show many other countries with higher levels.
There is good work being done to address this, including through National Numeracy, an independent charity established in 2012 that works with communities, employers and teachers to raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills.
Building confidence and competence with using numbers often means overcoming established preconceptions of maths being a ‘geek’ subject, or that people are born with a ‘maths gene’.
There is a need to challenge some of these beliefs and to offer practical ways to help people realise the benefits of being more numerate.
In recent research, National Numeracy found that the most maths-anxious group were those aged between 18 and 24, with 30 per cent saying that using maths and numbers made them feel anxious, compared to 18 per cent of all UK adults.
This shows that a significant proportion of school leavers do not feel confident in using numbers in everyday life – a skill that can be developed with the right focus and support.
In a world where data are everywhere and statistics underpin so much, yet just half of all 16-19 year olds study any maths at all, it is right to place a greater emphasis on numeracy. It certainly doesn’t mean everyone doing maths A-level, but a move towards all children studying some form of maths for longer.
This will not be the first step in this direction. Over the past decade, there have been steps to ensure more youngsters leave college with a minimum level of English and maths, if they did not at GCSE. In the design of T Levels we have had English, maths and digital skills built into all courses, for everyone, alongside the main occupational subject.
The PM was also clear that we need to not see education as something that ends aged 18 – or that university is seen as the only or necessarily better option. We are now seeing a shift in how technical courses are viewed, the inception of T Levels and development of quality apprenticeships.
I hope we will see much less of a ’divide’ between arts and science subjects. There is great value in the full range and as a society we need them all – both for our cultural richness, but also for hard-nosed economics: creative industries are a big employer and driver of growth.
An appreciation of lifelong learning is something that we need to build on, helping people re-train or gain new skills for jobs that might otherwise be hard to access, but also develop skills that bolster confidence with everyday life.